Cultural Differences and Respect in Korea

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It was just my second week of working in a hagwon when my headmaster said we needed to talk.

We moved into a small classroom, large Lego bricks scattered on the floor. The only place to sit was in tiny chairs for toddlers. Our knees were pressed up into our chests as we looked across at each other. I would have laughed if the headteacher didn’t look so serious. She stared at me intently, her lip quivering. She took a deep breath.

“I’ve actually been very upset with you this week. Very angry.” Immediately I was taken aback.  My mind raced, my stomach tightened. What had I done?

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Santa Teacher

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Christmas was approaching. Excitement building. At first the children spoke in hushed whispers, but as the day came closer their voices grew louder. Eventually they were shouting in hysterics “Santa is coming! Santa is coming!”

I wrote about lying to children in my last post. Well the biggest lie of all is Santa. And as Christmas approached it was my biggest problem.

Pity. That’s what I feel for any white male who works in a Korean hagwon at Christmas. Why? Because there’s a very definite possibility that you will find yourself tasked with being Santa. In a school filled with Korean women, the white guy becomes Santa by default.

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Daniel Teacher’s House on the Moon

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The best thing about working with kids is that they’ll believe anything you say. To children, anybody over 5 years older than them is an adult. Somebody to be trusted. Somebody who tells no lies.

I love a good lie. Something I can really sink my teeth into. Literally. The first time I lied to the children, I said I’d eaten another child.

One student had left the school to go to America. I explained that he wasn’t in America, he was in my belly. I’d eaten him.

At this point in the lie, the reaction is different based on the child. Some automatically believe it to be true. Some want more details (“What part of him did you eat first?”) Some shout out loud that I’m a liar. Then they say that they’re going to call the police and I’m going to go to prison for lying. Everybody laughs aloud.

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The Art of Bullshit

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Once a month, I look at the school calendar and sigh with annoyance. It can mean only one thing. The monthly kindergarten reports are due.

Each month, I hopelessly search my brain for something to say about how my students are doing. Rarely do I find something satisfactory to say. Instead, I bullshit.

Back when I was a young boy, I got a school report every six months, I never got a report when I was in pre-school though. Possibly because my parents wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Probably because the people at the pre-school realised there’s very little you can write about a child so young.
 
Still, each month I struggle through my reports for kids aged between 3 and 7. Writing a school report for a 4 year old is hard. Writing a different one every month is impossible. What can you actually say about a child that is so young he could probably still be breastfed?
 
The challenge of writing my reports is intensified due to my working for a private school. Parents spend their hard earned money to send their kids to my school, meaning the parents and children have to be kept happy. My reports can’t be negative. Or honest. Heaven forbid I say something bad about somebody’s little angel. If Mother gets a negative report, she’ll be unhappy. Maybe she’ll send her son or daughter to another school. We’ll lose money.
 
Better to have Mother living in blissful ignorance. She can believe her child is a perfect student who comes into every lesson with passion and enthusiam. We don’t have to lie, just bend the truth. That way we’ll be able to take her money each month. The reality of her child will never reach her. Her daughter spends every lesson picking her nose and eating the treasures she finds. There are parrots with a better grasp of English.

After all this time, I’ve started to perfect the art of bullshitting. The key is to be believable. Otherwise Mother might get suspicious. If I have a child who constantly throws temper tantrums, screaming and shouting to get what they want. I don’t write “Your daughter is a little shit and she’s scaring the other children with her constant noise.” I instead write “Your daughter has a lot of energy which she is using in class.” Sure, she’s using that energy to argue with the other children and throw chairs at me…but she is technically doing it in the classroom, so it’s believable bullshit.
 
If a child is lazy, they suddenly become “comfortable in the classroom”, if a child spends the entire lesson shouting rude words at me in Korean he “enjoys speaking activities”, if a boy can’t concentrate he becomes “imaginative”, if a girl draws all over the desk she’s “creative”. Whatever the situation, there’s some bullshit I can use to spin it. If a child pulled down his pants in class and pissed all over the desk, I’d probably just write that he really feels at home in the classroom.

I’m sure a lot of mothers read this bullshit and believe it. Nobody wants to believe their child is a monster. The truth is a horrible pill to swallow sometimes. We’d all much rather be told we’re an “energetic people person” than a “crazy psychopath”. Parents can easily become deluded about their children. “My child would never come into your classroom and fart in your face! My daughter is an angel who does nothing wrong.” It’s best to just let them keep believing it.

At the same time, no mother wants to believe their child is devoid of personality either – despite the fact that most young children are. You can’t exactly have a deep conversation with a person that can’t understand that 1 plus 1 equals 2. Yet every parent believes their child is special and gifted, so as to not disappoint, I must pretend they are.

“Since last month, Ben has managed to learn the entire alphabet, as well as the words for some colors. Afterwards he also learnt the theory of relativity and independently solved the problem of global warming. He tells me he’s working on a cure for cancer now which should be finished by next month.”

In reality I should be writing:

“Since last month, Ben has learnt absolutely nothing. Every time I ask him to sit down he crawls under the desk and laughs in my face. I tried to teach him the alphabet, but he decided he’d much rather take a box of Lego and pour it over the ground. One positive is we managed to make it through one full day this month where he didn’t poop in his pants!”

Really, I am confused as to why a child that still uses nappies has to have a report card. A report card is used to report on the progress of a child’s mind. How their intellect is progressing. Kind of ridiculous when a lot of my children are so young that they are closer to being vegetables than they are adult human beings!
 
The downside to my bullshit is that those children that do need improvement inevitably don’t get it because the school and parents would rather live a bubble of ignorance. Even worse, criticism may hurt the child or mother which would only hurt the schools profits as the parents would take their child to a “better” hagwon: a hagwon that is better at lying.
 
The expectations from parents are completely unrealistic. But over time I’ve started to fall in line with them. At first, I was of the opinion that my school was asking too much of the students. Expecting 5 year olds to memorise long passages of English, read long books and generally be advanced speakers of English. It all seemed too much. Now I get pissed if a 4 year old can’t sit still for 10 minutes to read a text book. Really, a child of that age should be praised for doing pretty much anything. “Hey, you scribbled on a piece of paper?! I’m putting that on the fridge!” Instead the kids are pressurised to the point of exhaustion.

So maybe in a way, my bullshit isn’t just for the mothers, it’s for the kids as well. It gives them a little break. Those kids that spend all day drawing all over their books, ignoring me, learning nothing. Well…good for them. Isn’t that what they should be doing when they’re kids anyway?

By giving them a good report, I allow them to be little kids for longer, rather than bringing the pressure to be perfect onto their shoulders straight away.

Sometimes it’s good to bullshit.

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 Photo by Jeffrey James Pacres

Pooping in Korea

Until I started to work with kids, I never realised how seriously I could take pooping. Sure, I used to keep a mental list of all the cleanest public bathrooms in Newcastle, just incase the need arose. And of course, I always made sure to go to the bathroom before seeing a movie, even if I didn’t feel the need. But going to the toilet was never an obsession that would be on my mind all day, every day.

I’m positive I’m not the only person in the world that enjoys using the toilet. It’s the perfect escape. A place that’s always quiet, where you can sit back and relax with a good book. You can take your time, forget all of life’s problems and just bask in the moment. Sometimes you can literally feel a weight being lifted from you. Best of all, the bathroom is a private place, where nobody can disturb you, where you can be alone with your own thoughts and feelings.

Until you get a job in a kindergarten.

When I was first given the tour of my kindergarten, the one thing to immediately jump out at me was the bathroom. It’s a tiny box room, with two cubicles, two urinals and not much space between them. One cubicle is so small that even our 4 year olds can peep over the door and look into it. That’s no problem though, it’s for children. It’s not an issue to them because they’re not old enough to appreciate privacy.

The second cubicle is adult sized. Four solid wooden walls with no room to peek over or under. There’s a nice, high wooden door with a lock. That’s important. I always hate going to a person’s house and finding out their bathroom has no lock. How can anybody live like this? I always wonder. You’re living in fear! Any time you’re in the bathroom somebody could walk in at any moment. That’s hardly a relaxing notion.

Fortunately my kindergarten’s cubicle has a lock. Unfortunately the bathroom itself doesn’t have a door. Upon first seeing this my mind couldn’t comprehend it. WHAT THE HELL?! WHAT TYPE OF BATHROOM HAS NO DOOR! Sure, the cubicle has a door, but the bathroom itself?! Hell no. In some places this may not be a problem…but in a Korean kindergarten it’s the biggest problem in the world.

You see Korea is almost 90% covered in mountains, meaning space is at a premium. Buildings use up every inch they can and the result is that my school is composed of lots of little rooms all clustered closely together. The bathroom doorway sits directly opposite a classroom doorway. This leads to an obvious anxiety – when you’re in the bathroom you get the impression everybody in the school can hear you. Gone are the days where I could go to the bathroom and enjoy listening to every little toot and splot. Over many months I’ve tried to develop techniques for a silent poop to no avail. No matter what I try a ninja poop is impossible. Even getting to the poop stage is hard sometimes.

I’ve spent the last year in psychological warfare with my children. The battleground is the bathroom. I’ll wait for a quiet moment during the day when the children are in their classrooms (snack time, just after lunch when the children are playing – each quiet moment of the day is memorised in my mind) and it’s then that the game begins.

I cannot simply walk into the bathroom. First I have to do a stakeout, ensure no children are in there. I slide by the door (or the lack of door) and if the bathroom isn’t empty, I walk by, pretend to be going elsewhere. Most often, I’ll look in to see a child at the urinal who I’ll make awkward eye contact with. Often they’ll wave and call “HELLO, DANIEL TEACHER!” adding to the discomfort.

Since young children lack social boundaries they are masters at creating awkward situations. By the time they’re teenagers they’ll (hopefully) feel so uncomfortable in public bathrooms that they’ll purposefully use a urinal as far away as they can from another human being. When they’re kids though they seem to take an amazing amount of pleasure in public urinating. My brain can’t handle it and I just feel awkward. It doesn’t help that the technique Korean children use for peeing is so exhibitionist. They pull down their trousers and underwear around their ankles. Lift up their t-shirt to show their belly. (At this point they might as well be nude!) They then stand in front of the urinal, thrusting their penis in its general direction. No aiming is involved, they simply lean towards the urinal and hope for the best.

When I’m not confronted by that sight and the bathroom is empty, I glance around me. No child can see me enter the bathroom. If they do, I may as well give up then and there. If they know I’m going to the bathroom, they’ll follow me in due to either their curiosity (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, how strange) or their complete sociopathy (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, let’s fuck with him.)

Once I’ve sneaked into the bathroom. I must be as quick as possible. I pounce into the cubicle, close the door behind me with one hand while undoing my belt with the other. Time is of the essence. There is only a 30 second window. Spend any more time in there and some child will wander in. So quickly, I’ll sit. Squeeze hard.

Nothing comes at first. The moment of elation I feel by sneaking into the bathroom has made me so excited that my whole body has tensed up. I squeeze my eyes, think of calm, flowing images. (A waterfall is my go to image, something about all that rushing out seems to tell my body to do the same.) Soon, I feel myself easing up, feel something start to move. Then I hear a noise. Footsteps.

I hold my breath. Whoever it is…maybe they’ll just turn around and leave. Right? RIGHT?! But then there’s a knock on the door and a small childish Korean voice. I knock back to let them know somebody is there. “Whatever you do, don’t speak…they’ll know its you.”

But they find out it’s me anyway. They kneel down…look through the tiny crack beneath the door. They see my shoes. “IT’S DANIEL TEACHER!”
Immediately it starts.

They yank on the door violently, pulling it again and again. I stare at the latch which once looked so sturdy, but now looks so flimsy. It seems to groan with every pull on the door. “DANIEL TEACHER! DANIEL TEACHER!” A second child arrives and screams with glee “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” Soon three children are hammering on the door shouting my name.

The crowd gets larger and larger. “Go away…” I mumble over the door, without a hint of conviction. All I can think about is how if the door snapped open they’d see me sitting on the toilet, pants around my ankles, my hairy white legs like two albino giraffe necks. I would never survive the humiliation. The children would joke about it every day for years to come – even when I’m long gone and dead of embarrassment. “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING AND HE HAD HAIR EVERYWHERE AND IT WAS SO FUNNY! RIGHT!? RIGHT!?”

By now, I know it’s no use. My butt cheeks have squeezed together so tightly that they could probably snap a piece of bamboo. Still – I reason – maybe all their noise will muffle the sound. So I try to relax. The children continue to yank on the door and with every pull I feel my sphincter tightening even more, becoming a black-hole, sucking up more and more of my butt cheeks.

Suddenly a new voice arrives. A Korean co-worker. She shouts at the kids to get out, but instead they just turn to her and shout “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” I groan. Daniel Teacher is most definitely not going to be pooping now.

I quickly pull up my pants. Flush. Open the door and push through the crowd of children. “DANIEL TEACHER! WERE YOU POOPING?!” Sheepishly I protest. “Er…no…” “DANIEL TEACHER! YOU WERE POOPING!” I’ve suddenly shrunk by a foot due to my butt sucking itself up in the absolute horror of the moment.

Washing my hands, I escape, but they follow me. Taunting me with their toilet talk. Eventually they get bored and disperse. I start to gain back my height. Relax a little. Anxiety seeps away. Soon it’s replaced with that feeling again. The feeling of needing to go. And that’s how I spend the rest of the day, in a state of psychological constipation. Always needing to go but never getting the opportunity due to the children. Those damn children!

From time to time, I manage to elude them, but even then the torture doesn’t end. After flushing away the spoils of war, I’ll wash my hands, whistling merrily to myself, whereupon a child will come running in. They’ll inspect the bathroom thoroughly and eventually catch a whiff. With all the energy they can muster they’ll run from the room screaming “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING! DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING!” and I’ll attempt the task of denying it for the rest of the day to the children that just wont shut up about it. Me? Pooping? Pfff. No way. Whoever smelt it dealt it.  Who ever denied it supplied it.
But denial in the end is useless, because one thing I’ve learnt is that although children are good at smelling shit, they are even better at smelling bullshit.

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Photo by Michel Filion.

A Guide to Korean Fried Chicken (치킨)

If you find this guide informative, be sure to check out my Korean BBQ guide.

If there’s one thing Koreans love, it’s fried chicken. Fried chicken places can be found on almost every block, just look for the hanguel 치킨. This hanguel phonetically sounds like chee-keen and is only used to signify fried chicken, so if you find it in the name of a shop it’s almost definitely going to be selling fried chicken.

If you’re somehow unable to find a fried chicken place, type 치킨 into Google Maps or Naver Maps and it should bring up every chicken seller in your area. Many are independent businesses, but just as many are major franchises.

Walking into one of these places can be quite intimidating, as often they’re small, dark and empty. Most people ring up for delivery (which you can do too) so often you’ll just find a kitchen and a cook in a tiny room. But don’t be too intimidated, these guys want your money, so they’ll be patient while you attempt to explain what you want. Don’t know what you want, or can’t read the menu? Forget about it. Daniel is here to help with ㅁ handy list of common items. I would say this list is good for most chicken places (inc KyoChon (교촌치킨), Boor (부어치킨), BHC, Toreore (또래오래), Hosigi (호식이치킨)).

Often chicken places have little magnetic menus to put on your fridge. If you find a good chicken place nearby, take their menu home and translate it, that way you’ll definitely know what you want each time you go in. It’s a pathetic way of living your life, but it’s better than starving.

<한마리> hanmari – one portion / one whole chicken
<두마리> doomari – two portions / two whole chickens
<반> ban – half portion

<순살> soonsal – boneless chicken
<윙> weeng / <날개> nal-gae – wings
<봉> bong – drumlettes
<다리> da-lee – legs
<텐더> tehn-daw – tenders
<콤보> kom-boh – combo, usually a mixture of chicken cuts (wings and drumlettes usually)
<국내산> gook-nae-san – domestic chicken (from Korea)

Usually menus are split up in some way, either by amount (look for doo <두> (2) and han <한> (1)) or by type of chicken. Set menus <>  are common, which will often be two items separated by a plus symbol (+), so if you want two boxes of chicken go for one of these, usually a set menu also comes with a bottle of cola and a disgusting packet of pickled radish. The standard box of chicken is a whole chicken that has been cut into pieces and fried. If you’re not a fan of boney chicken, ensure you pick an item with <순살> in it.

Types of Chicken

<양념> yeung-nyam – fried chicken tossed in sweet sauce
<간장> ganjang / <소이> soh-ee – fried chicken in soy sauce
<후라이드> who-la-ee-duh – plain old fried chicken
<오리지날> oh-lee-jee-nal – original chicken (plain old fried chicken again)
<매운> mae-oon / <매콤한> mae-kom-han / <핫> hat – spicy chicken
<파닭> pa-dal – topped with raw onions
<마늘> ma-neul – garlicy
<크리스피> kuh-lee-suh-pee – crispy
<불닭> bool-dal – very spicy chicken

These are some common items found on fried chicken menus. Unfortunately it would be impossible to list every chicken item, as often chicken restaurants have their own names for their chicken which tell you nothing about the product itself. Think of it this way, if you’d never been to McDonalds before, would you even know what is in a Bigmac? When in doubt go for yeungnyam chicken, it’s the tastiest for sure.

Random Menu Terms

<소스> soh-suh – sauce
<맛> mat – flavor (eg. <매운맛> – mae-oon-mat – spicy flavor)
<콜라> koh-la – cola
<생맥> saeng-mak – draft beer
<맥주> mak-jew – beer
<세트> seh-tuh meh-nyoo – set menu
<시리즈> see-lee-juh – series (used to denote a category of chicken)
<만> man – only (eg. <다리만> – legs only)
<와> wah – with (eg. <날개와다리> – wings with legs)

How to Buy Korean Fried Chicken

Here’s a step by step run down of buying chicken in Korea directly from the chicken shop.

1. Walk into the shop. As I mentioned they’re usually tiny places, so you’ll be noticed immediately. Saying hello will be a great first step. Sometimes they’ll give you a little menu, sometimes they’ll point to a menu on the wall.

2. Decide what you want. The majority of the time, the menu will have pictures making this as easy as pointing. If it doesn’t you can do the classic travellers technique of picking something random. If you’re not that adventurous and know a little hanguel, you could use the food guide above to choose something. My suggestion is you just buy some <양념치킨> yeungnyam chicken (yeung-nyam chee-keen juseyo), it’s usually the tastiest and is available at pretty much every chicken place.

3. If you want to have your chicken delivered, hand your address over. I find its much easier to just write my address on a post-it and hand it over, that way there’s no miscommunication and it’s easy for them to know I want it delivered. If you choose a nearby chicken place, they’ll have no problems knowing where you live either.

4. Hand over your money and leave. If you don’t want your food delivered, take a seat and wait, it usually takes 15-20 minutes. Easy.

My level of Korean is pretty much 1/10, but I’ve managed to order Korean fried chicken multiple times. If in doubt, use the age old technique of shrugging while looking confused. You’ll look like a schmuck, but you’ll get your chicken eventually.

Good luck.

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Photo by hermitsmoores on Flickr.