First Days in Korea–6

February 27, 2000

Yesterday Dan, the other American professor, took me downtown.  We can get the bus right in front of our apartment.  It stops about every ten minutes, and costs 540 won, about 50 cents.  Arriving downtown in about ten minutes, it goes to the station, which is a big parking lot with a tiny little old building for buying tickets.  It is peopled with old women with bent backs, sitting on their heels; students in uniforms; children;  just everybody.  One man seems to direct the buses and tell them where to pull in, but you have to be careful; it’s so crowded and active there; a bus might back into you if you’re not watching.

We went to the Korea Exchange Bank, where Dan has an account, and opened one for me.  He showed me how to work the ATM.  Then we went for train tickets, passing the outdoor market.  Dan bought fresh strawberries.

The train station was upstairs, in a dark old building with a 1940s movie atmosphere.  Dan pulled out his schedule card, wrote dates and times on paper.  When the clerk took a while and got confused, he blew up and started ranting loudly.  Men came and watched.  It was embarrassing.  He got results, though.    A younger woman took over from the muddling older one.

This place–downtown, etc.–seems ramshackle, haphazard, the buildings stacked together without a plan.  Roads and cars come out from nowhere.  Every time I’ve been in a vehicle so far, I’ve thought, we will be in an accident.

We got tickets to Taejon for our trip to the immigration office.  Then Dan took me to a shop for the pictures I will need to give there.  It was a fun experience, a tiny photo studio up the back stairs, with a nice young guy about twenty-two or so.  He told me–in English–to have a “little smile,” “soft smile.”   He brushed my hair back.

While we waited for the pictures, we went to a coffee shop down the street, upstairs.  It had a nice, quiet atmosphere, with spacious upholstered booths by the window.  I had a Coke, and Dan ordered coffee.  But they give us each a free cup of barley tea, and crackers at first.  With our drinks they brought a little pack of pretzel sticks dipped in chocolate, free.  They served us, but there’s no tipping in Korea!  Our server didn’t speak any English.  She was sweet, though.

We went to the grocery store.  It was pretty confusing, but I got rice, cups, soy sauce, Oreos, etc.  Dan blew up again, at the checkout counter. It was because the girl mistakenly rang up our orders together.   A perfectly understandable mistake.  I saw a girl laugh, embarrassed.  I was freaked out.  But they stayed calm and checked us out separately, and we got a taxi outside, 3,000 won (about $3), and went home.

He’s been helpful to me, and I’m grateful.  But he’s really a hothead; you never know when he’s going to erupt.

First Days in Korea–5

February 27, 2000

Last night, the maintenance guy came to fix my heat. I was so glad! I was rolled up in the fancy bedspread I’d dragged into the living room.  I was watching TV–mostly CNN, but also a Korean game show that featured kids being given clues by adults, and a very strange English lesson that repeated a dialogue:  “Why are you in a hurry?  Because I’m late for work.  Why are you late for work?  Because I couldn’t get up.  Why couldn’t you get up?  Because I worked late last night.  Why did you work late last night?  Because I was late for work yesterday morning.”  The people were British or American, but their  intonation was unnatural, robotic.  The man who was late for work looked like a chronic alcoholic, complete with red, blotchy face.

There’s English and Korean music TV, maybe even French.  One show features dancing that looks Indonesian.  And there are several sitcoms in Korean, which I don’t understand at all.  I watched an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito movie dubbed in Korean–if you can imagine!  Later, an old black-and-white British movie in English with subtitles in Korean hangul.

But back to me, and my problem of freezing to death in my apartment, not wanting to bother Dan.  (He might be drunk or get mad; I’ve seen his temper flare up; no thanks.)  I didn’t want to bother Professor Park either.  But I was thinking I was going to get sick, maybe get pneumonia and die in Korea.

So I’m rolled up in the bedspread in front of the TV, thinking maybe I can survive the night this way.   I think of campers, of Jack London.  I’m an adventurer!  But then, tomorrow’s going to be another day of freezing; why do I have to wait?

I start dozing off, falling forward.  I’m in two straight-back office-type chairs, one to sit in, the other for feet.  It’s my only living-room furniture.  The phone rings.  It’s Professor Park!  She’s calling from her home near Seoul, to ask if everything is okay.  No, I say.  It’s cold.  I’m afraid I’m going to get sick.

Oh no, she says.  What to do?  What to do?

Maybe nothing can be done, I say, regretting my words immediately.

Oh no, what can we do, she continues, thinking out loud.  And by the way, her English is perfect.  Then she comes up with a plan.  Find Korean people in the building (oh my God).  Knock on doors upstairs and down until they answer.  She even gives me the exact words to say in Korean, “Munjeh-ga itsumnida.”  It means “There is a problem.”  She’s terrific!  She tells me to get the man of the house to come and look at it.

Are you sure? I say skeptically.  Yes.  Then call her back.

Gingerly I go downstairs, ring bells.  No one answers.  I come back to my next-door neighbor.  I’ve never seen who lives here.  A woman answers.  She seems nice, lets me in.  I give my message.  She calls Park.

This woman is studying or working.  She appears to be a professor.  Everything is neat and square in her place–stacks of copies on the table, bed, bookcases, and books, almost all in Korean.  These don’t seem real to me, somehow.  But of course they are; I just have no clue what they’re about.

She comes over in her slippers, calls someone, calls someone else–on her little cell phone; I guess everyone here has one.*   She has a little address book with pictures.  She writes down for me, Min Ju Baek, with a number.

I thank her and she leaves.  I think he’s coming but no one comes.  Was I supposed to call him?  I call Park.  In the middle of our conversation, he comes.  Knock, knock, knock.  “School!” he says.

“Min Ju Baek?”  I say, opening the door.  He responds with what appears to be the Korean equivalent of yeah.

He is a far cry from the maintenance men I know at home, with their torn jeans, dirty caps and swaggers.  This guy is well dressed, for one thing. He wears clean, brand-name-embossed sweats, pure white sneakers.   Also, their is no indication that he might be on drugs or hung over.  And he is in such good shape!  He jumps onto the heater with an animal grace.  He moves to the floor where the heat is supposed to be, works sitting back on his heels, then stands up in one graceful motion.  He zooms around my apartment,  paying me no mind.  He sings to himself a little.

We communicate with very few words, me throwing a couple Korean ones at him, he using some English, some Korean.  It’s amazing that we can talk in this way.  When he lapses into Korean sentences and paragraphs, though, I lead him to the phone, and Park.

Everyone is happy–especially me; I finally have heat. And Ji Yeon Park is very relieved.  She’s so nice, sweet, smart–and a really good problem-solver.  I’m so lucky to have her.



* In the year 2000, very few people that I knew in the U.S.  had cell phones.  In South Korea, everyone did–except me.  But I had a land line in my apartment.

First Days in Korea–4

February 26, 2000

It’s a twelve-minute walk to the building where my office is.  I go out of my apartment and through the parking lot, down a drive and to the right.  On the left, at the side of the road, is an orange tent where people stop.  I’m not sure, but I think someone sells barbecue inside.  I continue past a field, with a court where boys are always playing basketball.  I don’t know who they are.  Far above, you can see university buildings.  I walk about a block, turning left at the corner where there’s a convenience store and some newspaper slots and a few other shops.   I have no idea what these places are, but that’s the benefit of being a worker instead of a tourist, staying in one place; sooner or later, I may find out.

The street slopes uphill for a while, not steeply but steadily, past a little set of stone steps, and some buildings.  One of them contains what’s called the General Affairs Office, and the President’s office.  You get to the top and start down.  My building is in back, with arches at the entrance.

It’s not as I pictured it, before I left home, a scenic jaunt through woods.  It’s streets, and hills.  But what I like is seeing mountains in the distance.  It’s a nice surprise.

I met the president of the university yesterday.  Dr. Park and I went to his office at 10:30, and we were in there until 12:00, talking.  He was charming; I enjoyed our meeting.  Dan had said he was relatively young, around fifty-three.  I thought he seemed younger.  He was worldly and smart, with a sense of humor.  He lived in Germany for eighteen years, so he knows German, and his English is almost perfect.

He has been to the United States, too.  He told a story of driving in some big American city and getting lost, and he was afraid.  He said that a friend had told him to carry a twenty-dollar bill, for giving to someone who wants to hold you up with a gun.

He was kind, asking if I was tired, asking what I’d had for dinner the night before.

In the afternoon I walked almost to downtown, to the post office.  I read signs and I  passed the prison.   It has some painted murals in front that make it look festive.  When I first saw it, I was with Professor Park.  “What’s that?” I asked her, “a resort?”  “No,” she said, “it’s a prison.”

Everything looks thrown together here–unplanned, kind of shabby.  The people are attractive, though.  Young students are well dressed.  Girls hold hands.

It’s a good thing I brought long underwear.  It’s really freezing in this apartment.  I don’t think the heat works.

First Days in Korea–3

February 24, 2000, 7 p.m.

Random thoughts:  The floor is the warmest place.  I’ll get in shape here, walking up and down the hills to work.  Dr. Park is overworked, and she complains–but cheerfully.  She thinks we work more than at other universities in Korea.  It’s not hard to believe; I’m teaching 21 hours.  She has 14, plus an administrative assignment.

We had a bizarre little English faculty meeting, with some chat in English, some Korean.  At first I was nervous.  Then I realized that I was not expected to participate–and I began to enjoy the positive side of not knowing the language.  It’s kind of fun just sitting there not understanding anything while two colleagues talk.  These faculty meetings are going to be a lot less stressful than the ones at home!

I met Professor Lee, a handsome, tall man, Director of Language Labs; Professor Kim–also some kind of administrator; Professor Kang–Chair of the English Department, pretty, nervous, sarcastic, oddly flirtatious; Dan Lavelle–the returning American professor, dressed in a suit, smelled like booze.

Professor Kang was sophisticated in a grey suit and high heels.  I had chosen a denim jumper and white shirt, which was normal attire at home, but here I felt sloppy.  Professor Park wore a dark-colored pants suit, not sophisticated, but more professional than I.


February 25, 2000

Dan, the other American professor (I’m called Professor too, here; I love it!), told me he asked for fewer hours this semester, acknowledging that it means less money.  He needs the time more, he said.  I could really understand that; it’s what I want too!

But they’ve given me a killer schedule, 21 hours of teaching.  I can’t believe they could be so cruel.  Yesterday I thought, this is going to kill me.  How can I do it?  But I didn’t complain.  How can I complain?  I was depressed last night, thinking, I don’t care about travel one bit, just get me out of here!

This is spring term though.  It has to get better.  The weather will get warmer and prettier.  Life will be easier.  Won’t it?

Some of the challenges here are fun.  I pick up words from conversations--Yongeo, English; chigeum, now; onje, when.  Inspired by my former students in the United States, I walk into stores, speak in gestures and one-word sentences.

The post office lady asked me if I wanted coffee.  “Kopi?” she said as I was leaving.  I said no, flustered and taken by surprise.  Coffee at the post office?  Probably she wanted to practice her English though.  Next time I’ll say yes.

First Days in Korea–2

Note:  I’ve decided to change the names of all the people I mention in these Korea blog posts.  No real names are used.  It’s just easier that way.  I don’t know who would object and who wouldn’t.


February 24, 2000, cont’d.

At the airport Arrivals area, I spotted a young student with a sign, my name in big letters.  I smiled and nodded.  His name is Young Sam.  He’s the first person I’ve met here in Korea.  Professor Ji Yeon Park (female, my Korean faculty mentor) told me he’ll be my helper, cleaning my office, for example.  Wow, sounds good!  He was tentative about speaking to me in English.  On the long van trip, Professor Park kept encouraging him to talk to me.  It was tiring for us both.

It was about a two-hour trip to the university.  I saw buildings outlined in neon.  Professor Park said they were motels.  We stopped at a place on the highway that had bathrooms and a store.  Young Sam bought us drinks, banana milk.  I’d never had it before, but I liked it.

The driver, Mr. Cho, suggested going out to eat before they took me to my apartment.  We went to a fairly fancy although rustic little restaurant that looked like a mushroom.  The servers bowed to us when we walked in.  They brought us glasses of warm water, which seemed unusual until I realized it made sense to drink warm water in cold weather; we Americans are the crazy ones, drinking cold water with ice in the winter!  Dr. Park ordered food and more food, salad, kimchi, beef, rice.

I was not hungry when I got to my new apartment, which is spacious, with living room, two bedrooms, a bathroom,  full kitchen and a balcony.  I had imagined small boxlike place with paper screens.  I might have seen that in a movie.  This was much better!





First Days in Korea

In 2000, I taught English for a year on an exchange program between my university and one in South Korea.  I’d like to share excerpts from my journal that year.  It’s interesting to me to read about those days, which might just be because it was my life!  But it might be interesting or even useful to others, so I’m going to give it a try.


February 22, 2000

Today is the day I leave for Korea.  At the age of fifty-six, I’m going on an adventure!  I wonder what my apartment will be like.  I’m looking forward to landing in Seoul at night, with all the lights.


February 24, 2000

I’m here.  I lost a day, traveling.   I couldn’t sleep at all, so I read from 4 to 5 am.

I think of Nell, and want to cry.  I miss Darcy, Tom, my known comfortable way of life.  And I feel humbled, in a new place, don’t know anything, starting a new job, fearful.  But I can do it one day at a time.

The Asiana flight attendants were all Korean, very pretty, young, and efficient.  The food was great–bibimbap, seafood with noodles, lots of fruits and vegetables, lots of juice and water passed around, which is so good on a long trip, good for jet lag.

The only horrible thing was being cramped in that seat so long–by the window, with a Korean couple I had to climb over every time I went to the bathroom.  I thought they probably hated me for being so big and clumsy, for having to go all the time.

I got up and stood for a while, stretching, in a corner between the kitchen and a restroom.  A flight attendant came and talked to me.  She was nice, and almost perfectly bilingual, except she said, “You feel boring?”  It’s a mistake that so many of the international students make; they’re always saying they feel boring in our small town, not realizing how funny they sound.

I hope the students won’t feel boring in my classes.

Landing in Seoul was not the spectacular, glitzy event I had expected.  In fact, the city looked mud-grey, with row after row of identical apartment buildings.  I felt depressed, scared, not excited at all.  I couldn’t believe I had made such a mistake, that culture shock was setting in before I even got there.  “I want to go home!” I thought.

However, we landed and got off the plane, and I was in Korea, starting my new life.



Let’s Get Rid of Whomever!

It’s time to address the elephant in the room: the word whomever, and its rampant incorrect usage. The linguists call it “hypercorrection,” using something that sounds more correct, but isn’t.

I used to think it was just people who were trying to appear smarter who used whomever, but the other day when I saw the word used incorrectly twice in one sentence in the newspaper, I thought, this problem has reached epidemic proportions!

It was something like “Whomever plans to run for office, and whomever needs to register to vote….” Are you kidding me? I know we’re just a small semi-rural area in the Midwest, but I do expect our reporters to understand the English language.

The fact is, whoever is the appropriate form when it is the subject of the sentence or clause. Whomever is the object form.

Some people seem to think that whomever lends dignity or formality, like Whereas in a proclamation.  But “Whoever made this mess needs to clean it up” is correct, whether you’re talking about the kids in the kitchen or the politicians in Washington, D.C.  So is, “I would like to thank whoever voted for that bill.”

Here’s an example of the incorrect usage of whomever that’s been weighing heavily on me for a while:

On an email from a fellow book-club member: “I wonder if I could trade with whomever is next.”  The writer had good intentions and tbought she was using correct grammar.  But she was hyper correcting.

Here are two examples of the correct usage of whomever:

“I will welcome whomever you invite to dinner.”

Whomever the people choose will be our next representative.”

Still, while the grammar is correct, I would be perfectly happy with whoever in both cases.  And I really wouldn’t mind getting rid of whomever altogether.  It would keep things simple and solve the hypercorrection problem.

I hope that whoever is reading this will think twice before using the word whomever. Ever.

Reading Henry James in Retirement

I’m reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. My friend Shannon, who almost got a PhD in English literature, tells me not to bother with it.

“You don’t have to do that,” she says.

I know I don’t have to, but the thing is, I want to. I really want to, and I try to explain to her why.

First, I find that I love reading the classics in my old age. Since I turned sixty, which was a while ago, I’ve discovered the pleasures of D. H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Hardy and Mark Twain, among others. These were all authors I was encouraged if not forced to read as a young student, as they were canonized as the best, the must-reads.

I don’t like to be told what to read, though. And also, in college I was discovering other things besides literature—living away from home in a city, in a dormitory where friends were available 24/7, and just beginning to date.  (I told you I was a late bloomer.)   And I had homework, lots of reading in textbooks. How could a nineteenth-century novel be a pleasure to read after all that?

Those excerpts of long-ago and just plain long novels presented in thick anthologies printed in the smallest type on the thinnest of tissue paper were a chore to read at that time in my life. I didn’t care. They were wasted on the young me.

But now that I’m retired, I have the time to read—and the inclination. The classics interest me now. I am fascinated by what those people were thinking, and how they expressed themselves. I enjoy puzzling out James’s long, looping sentences—so different from the fragments we use today.  I like being surprised by similarities between me and one of Lawrence’s heroines. I like reading these books.

So I’m reading a chapter a day of Portrait. Mind you, I have to tackle it in the morning, when I am having a cup of coffee and feeling fresh. Sometimes one paragraph is a page long!  I could never read writing such as this at the end of the day, in bed.

But I have these blessed mornings now, with no work or school to rush to. I have the luxury I didn’t have when I was younger of opening a book that holds, for me, treasures of language and culture, intriguing descriptions and ideas from the past.   IMG_20171011_131349979IMG_20171011_131243351img_20171011_131321837_hdr.jpgIt’s such a pleasure.

How Do You Like My Hashtags?

I just posted something on Facebook and included several hashtags. This is new for me. I had to go back and edit them when I realized you don’t put any spaces between the words!

How weird is that?  And why?

Well anyway, I did it, and I can’t believe it.  These things go against the conventions of the English language as I’ve known them, and taught them.

And yet . . . I am fascinated by hashtags, and all the changes in the language that have resulted from our use of technological devices.  I have changed along with everyone else.

On texts, for example, I don’t always use periods or capital letters.  Yes, I feel guilty–but I’m in a hurry, so why bother?  Does it really matter?

I still use complete sentences, with punctuation, in my emails.  Well, except I’ve noticed lately how often I omit the subject pronoun in my sentences:  “Got your email.  Hope you’re doing well.  Don’t have time right now for a long reply.”  Emoji emoji, send.

And now hashtags are occurring naturally to me, in the same way that new words heard by young children begin to pop naturally out of their mouths, or new slang expressions, after you’ve heard them used for a while, are suddenly not only used by you, but seem like the only possible way to express that thought or feeling.

I’ve observed people’s hashtags for a while now on Facebook; I’ve been intrigued and entertained by them.  There’s something very amusing about a short narrative with a hashtag or two attached, like afterthoughts or side remarks.

So today I tried it myself, and I’m not sure how well I did, but I liked doing it!

#alwaysalinguist #nevertooold



Go! Mrs. Go!–a Korean Drama

house and Namhae scarf 2016 012

My Namhae souvenir bandana

I will watch anything halfway decent in Korean in order to keep up my skill—such as it is—in that language. So I was delighted when I heard about Go! Mrs. Go! My sister said that she and her family were watching and enjoying this Korean drama, or TV series. I was surprised. They’ve been to Japan, and they love things Japanese, but Japan is not Korea.  It must be pretty good for them to like it.

It turned out to be a really good series, which I loved for several reasons, not just the language practice. (Note: There are subtitles, and I use them.)

First, Mrs. Go lives in Namhae, an island to the south of Korea. It’s a beautiful place, and I’ve been there. When I taught English in South Korea in 2000 at Chungwoon University, the faculty took a trip to Namhae. I fell in love with the place because of the beautiful views of the sea.

On the show, the main character, Go Bong Sil, lives in a lovely house there, with a greenhouse where she raises flowers. When her husband dies suddenly, her life changes and she has to figure out how to survive. She is a strong and kind woman. Through her kindness, she takes in a homeless South American man. When he leaves, he gives her a gift of seeds. They sprout and she makes a tea from them which proves to be rejuvenating to a lot of people, almost magical.

Bong Sil decides to move to Seoul, to the Itaewon district. There her adventures, good and bad, continue.

Maybe Bong Sil is a little too good to be true—kind to everyone, honest to a fault. She feeds everyone, always thinks of others, and is always instinctively helpful. Most of all, she has integrity.

But there are people like this, and I admire this fictional woman so much.

She gets to open her own restaurant in Itaewon. We see her cooking, and we learn a lot about Korean dishes. She cooks delicious and healthy food. She knows the health benefits of the various fresh ingredients she uses.

This is not unusual in Korea. One thing that struck me, when I lived there, was that the food was both delicious and healthy at the same time. It didn’t have to be a choice between the two.

South Korea is a traditional society, although it is changing as the whole world changes. Still, when I was there it was unheard of for a couple to show affection in public. This is shown in the drama Go! Mrs. Go!

On the other hand, one of the characters is a transgender female. Her story is touching, and she is portrayed in a very human, respectful way. That was something that surprised me, too, about this Korean drama.

I got hooked on it and found myself binge-watching Go! Mrs. Go! Now I’m looking for another good Korean drama, one that, like this one, appeals not just to youth but to older people too. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!