Who’s knocking at my door?

It’s Mrs. Kim and Mr. Kim, my new omma and appa.  “Boila,” she says, “chuah.”  Mr. Kim looks at the thermostat and it is at 40 degrees Centigrade.  “Chuah,”  Mrs. Kim says and Mr. Kim turns the heat up to 50 degrees.  He then turns it down to 47 but Mrs. Kim protests and says “chuah” again, “oh (5) + (whatever ten degrees is in Korean)”  She asks if I’ve eaten and I pat my belly like I’m pregnant and she laughs. I’m just too exhausted to communicate by hand gestures tonight, after being up to 3 a.m. the night before and going to a job interview today.   (now with an hour commute, I get up at 5:30 or 6 am)  I got home, played a game of tetris and fell asleep mid-game…

The temperature thing is hilarious because I had three teacher friends visit over the weekend, and at 40 degrees everyone was sweltering and we had the window open.  (40 is as low as it goes)  But it’s so cold today, that I don’t mind the extra heat, and there’s quite the draft coming from the bathroom.

Korean bathrooms aren’t heated, due to the heating being in the floor everywhere else and the slope and depression needed to drain the floors doesn’t leave enough floor depth to run coils through.  In an apartment, that’s not such a big deal, since the adjacent rooms keep the chill off.  But since I’m the basement of a house and my bathroom is the size of a bedroom, it’s pretty damn cold in there.

The first day in the apartment I was really concerned because I had to psyche myself up to use the toilet, it being so cold.  And condensation was dripping off the ceiling and walls, so it felt like what I imagine a Siberian solitary confinement jail cell would be like.  Damp.  Freezing.  Cave-like, stallagtites should be growing off the ceiling…

Then I realized if I could just heat the room, that would eliminate the condensation (and reduce the growth of mold in the intervening wall).  I bought a little space heater and ran it for a full day and suddenly my bathroom was a livable, usable space!  Now I leave the door open and let the ambient heat from the over-heated floor spill into the bathroom, and only pre-heat the air in the bathroom prior to taking a shower.  And the whole apartment smells less and less musty as a result.  But the floor is always cold, so that’s yet another good reason to have shower shoes.

I’m leaving the ondol heater on all day, and am worried about the cost.  But there’s soooo much floor space I fear turning it off would cost even more to bring the concrete back up to temperature.  I’m worried what the bill is going to be like or if I’ll have enough.  BUT – this place is going to be just awesome in the summer, when it will be cool inside and sweltering outside.  And, because most of this basement apartment is concrete and brick, I think it probably retains the heat pretty well.  I guess that’s why most small buildings you see in Korea are masonry – it just makes sense here, with its extreme climate.  A wood-framed house here would be so thermally uncomfortable and expensive to heat and cool.

Last Friday adjumma (what Mrs. Kim wants to be called) had me up for dinner.  She had a big pot of kimchi chiggae on the stove.  So she served kimchi chiggae with a side of kimchi, rice (pop) and seaweed (laver).  Her cooking is so spicy, even she has to suck in her breath after every bite to cool off her tongue.  I was eating the chiggae (which means stew) like soup, but she corrected me and showed me I must put the pop on the laver and then take some kimchi from the chiggae and add it, roll it up and eat it.  Then she got out some green onions and peppers marinated in vinegar and soysauce and spooned it on her next pop roll.  I copied her and she quickly told me jokum!  (a little!) She was right, it was pure salt.  Next, she wondered if I liked kimchi and she got out a piece, cut it into strips (Koreans do this with their chopsticks, and then fed me by hand like a baby!  Next, she poured her kimchi into her pop and mixed it up and also put that on laver. (Koreans are always mixing everything into an unappetizing-looking red-colored mess) She thought it was weird I ate the chiggae separately, so made me also pour it into my rice and mix it up.  Several times she didn’t think I had enough chiggae to rice proportions and made me add more.  I felt like I was five years old, but it was nice to be taken care of.

After dinner we had a hand gesture conversation, and then she called her daughter in Gainesville, Florida.  She wanted her daughter to explain to me that I should never want for anything and to come get her if there was anything I needed or if I was hungry or needed kimchi.  FINALLY!  The legendary but missing Korean hospitality I’d heard of but never seen!  I told her daughter I was glad she was speaking to me like a 2 year old, since I might actually learn Korean that way, and that actually I was 45.   Her daughter laughed and said YES, her mom was very very friendly and that before I knew it she would be arranging a marriage.  I tell her that would be great.  Except what Korean man would want me – I don’t cook, I’m not subservient, I’m far from a trophy, and I can’t speak Korean.

But I really want to speak with Mrs. Kim so have started looking at Korean again.


So I’ve gone from grammatically fascinating and way too difficult learning Korean books, and ended up discarding them, since I’m just not academically disciplined and have too much else going on.  Each successive trip to the bookstore I got simpler and simpler books. I’ve now settled on what I feel is the easiest to digest and yet most culturally informative, practical and useful.  Still don’t have my head in study mode, but it’s a great read, and when I do find time for it, this book is really THE most concise and helpful thing I’ve found .


Seven Star saw me today and wondered if I was wearing make-up. No.  That’s just raw skin that’s been exfoliated too much.  Last week I left the officetel immediately after having taken a shower and walked to school.  (because I didn’t know how to turn the hot water heater on at the new place)  But it was so bitter cold that by the time I got to school my hair was frozen crispy and my entire face was chapped.  It’s taken a whole week and daily cleansing, rubbing, and moisturizing to get back to almost normal.  The only thing remaining are my eyelids – yup, my EYELIDS are chapped, and it’s too delicate an area to rough up like the rest of my face.  So it feels really weird to have crocodile skin on my eyelids!  At least the burnt dry irritated look is gone from my face and now replaced with newly exposed pink skin.

I haven’t experienced cold weather like this since I was a kid growing up in Detroit.  But I think it’s windier here or something, as it feels colder to me.  The Koreans I speak with all swear it was much much worse ten years ago, but that global warming has made the winters more bearable.  Can’t imagine what our ancestors had to live through.


School is nearly finished.  This last month I’ve only been a babysitter instead of a teacher, and that makes everyone happy.  After watching the Chronicles of Narnia 14 times, I never want to see it ever again!  Class 1-1 was just a nightmare yesterday, like litle kids tanked up on sugar, they couldn’t even sit still for the movie they screamed for and talked so loud that you couldn’t hear ANY of the movie.  (let me add that even though I mention 1-1 and 1-3 a lot, these are my only two bad classes – they just get the most mention because they totally confound me and I need to vent)  So I told the worst offenders to go back to their room.  And they just sat there and stared at me.  I told them again, and they didn’t budge and some said no.  Total insubordination.  I told them again and they just refused to move.  So I screamed “get out.  GET OUT of the English zone.  Now!”  Finally, they left.  I then apologized to the good boys and played the movie.  After a few minutes I went back to check on what mayhem the bad boys were creating, only to find them ALL STUDYING in total silence.  They all wanted to see the movie, only as an excuse to let out some of their pent up aggressions.  But really, these are all the worst students, so with final exams coming tomorrow, they knew they should use the time to study.  It was totally shocking to see what a few moments earlier were total animals, all self-disciplined and studying like monks.

The girl’s classes were given a choice of movie or self-study, and they all chose study, whereas none of the boys chose self-study.  I told Gi-Sook “only in Korea.”  I then explained to her how when I was growing up, the only study hall we had was detention and that it was a punishment:  certainly nothing we’d choose over a movie.  I think she was kind of proud when I told her that.  I walked around the classroom with her and every book was a confusing sea of highlighting and underlining;  almost unintelligible, there were so many colors and layers.  I explained how American students don’t purchase textbooks until college and how we aren’t allowed to write in our books.  She wondered how we studied, and I told her we learn to take notes on separate sheets of paper.  She found that fascinating.

One more week of school.  Then two and a half weeks of extra classes for winter camp.  I’m only teaching one class two days a week, and the rest of the time I have to come in to school and produce SOMETHING.  So because nobody told me I was supposed to write my lesson plans down before,  which I did think was unusually liberal at the time, I have to write up a year’s worth of lesson plans.  Oh well.  I guess that beats being totally bored, but the way the school district has treated me, I also don’t feel I owe them any good ideas.

I did deliver a little farewell address to the students.  Quit about halfway through the week – everyone, myself included, is a little burnt out.  I told them I’d read a lot about Korea before I came here:  about how rude people were, how cold, how Korean business men were dishonest, about corruption, dirty politics, xenophobia and racism.  I told them I’d read about Korean history and respected how they’d survived centuries of oppression and occupation.  I told them that I wanted to learn about Korea and love Korea, because I carry Korean blood in me.  But then I told them that everything negative I’d heard about this place was true, that I’d seen corruption and been cheated, lied to, and mistrusted.  I also told them I learned to like Korean students and that I respected the suffering they had to go through.  I told them I was sad I couldn’t see them more frequently so I could get to know them better.  I told them I’d not only tried to teach them English, but also about western culture.  I told them it was important to learn English, not only because it well help with their economic survival in a global world, but also because half the knowledge in the electronic world is written in English and that new worlds will open to them if they are able to tap into that.   I told them I was concerned, because many of the things about the west they love are not good things, but that many of the negative ideas they have about western culture are all wrong, so they need to choose wisely.  I  told them that they were the future, and that I believed they could change Korea for the better.  I told them they HAD to change Korea for the better, because the adults aren’t doing it.  I told them I hoped they would grow into fine people, and I asked them to do their best to balance their lives, be kind, be open and to make the time to explore what they love.

One boy said bitterly, “Korea will never change.  It’s impossible.”

I told him it has to.   Do you want to live under laws that don’t protect you?  Do you want to mistrust everyone around you?   Do you want your children to spend 16 hours a day in school? No, I didn’t think so.  You must change things.  Only you can do it.

I’m going to be sad not having a captive audience of high school kids.  Forty at a time is too many, but I think in recapping the year they might see some value in my attempts.


God, I’m tired.  Can I retire now?

I just want to sit around the yarn shop with the other women knitting and crocheting.   There’s one by my house, and they sit there for hours on the heated floor gabbing and knitting and crocheting.  I got a real kick out of it.  I guess knitting is universal.

I need to find time and money for leisurely pursuits, find interest groups where I can meet people.  But right now I have to wash clothes by hand and don’t have a refrigerator or stove, so that will have to be my focus for the time being.

This year has been nothing but incredible stress, and I haven’t written because the past few weeks were just too dark to even describe what has transpired.  As soon as I find a job, things will get better.  There’s nowhere to go but up.  Plus, I live in a great neighborhood and have Mrs. Kim in my life now, and I’m really motivated to get to know her.

2 thoughts on “Who’s knocking at my door?

  1. Interesting. I have an all-girls school and most of them would choose a movie over self-study any day!

    As for Korean study, I don’t know if you’re up for a (free) twice a week class but I’m almost done with a session at the Global Village Center in Hongdae and it was REALLY helpful. I’m sure part of it was our teacher who’s really fun and informal (and fluent in Chinese)! Even though I had studied a little bit before, I chose to take the very lowest class and it was totally worth it to gain a firm foundation.

    Good for you in encouraging your students to “be the change”. Hopefully they’ll take your words to heart. ^^

  2. Thanks for the language class tip! Now that I live in Seoul, Hongdae’s only about a 15 minutes commute and twice a week is PERFECT. I just have to wait and see what my job schedule will shake out to be, and I will definitely check it out.

    I wanted to go to Sogang because it’s more communicative than the other schools, but I really don’t have the commitment for three days of intensive lessons. On the other hand, I want to make some progress, so “firm foundation” sounds perfect.

    All girl’s high school would be a dream, I’m jealous!

    he, he, he. I also told a few of the girl’s classes I hope they rule Korea one day! Hopefully they won’t grow up to be their moms, as they’re the ones enforcing this “education” insanity.

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