The day a pig flew.

I have been sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for 17 and a half hours.

It’s probably more like three quarters of an hour, but I’m going with feelings rather than facts here. I am dying. I am wearing a mask (it is Halloween after all) and dying. Let me tell you, being a sick white girl in a doctor’s waiting room full of Koreans is not exactly the most comfortable experience. Everyone is staring disapprovingly as I cough the wheezing, rasping, rattling cough of a person at death’s door, and sweat is pouring down my face, soaking my hair and my clothes. People are actually getting up and walking away to wait outside the door.

Poor Jennifer is beside me with her phone, dealing with the catastrophe of 2 out of her 3 foreign teachers being absent on the day of the Halloween party that we were in charge of running. She fires off rapid instructions in Korean to one person after another as I sway miserably beside her. Then she switches to English and covers the phone, motioning to me.

How do you play mummy game? she asks, anxiously. I groan, trying to get my brain to work. Two pairs of children at a time, I say with an effort, and one child in each pair wraps their partner in toilet roll. Then the two mummies have to race to the finish line.

Jennifer nods, and switches back to Korean, at which point everyone who has remained in the waiting room begins to grin. I realise that it is probably not the most normal thing in the world for someone in a doctor’s waiting room to be issuing instructions about wrapping small children in toilet roll and then racing them.

And here I am with a mountain of Tamiflu and various other pills which could be poison for all I know, having slept all day and woken up in a pool of sweat again. Funny. Koreans were reluctant to let me into their country in case I brought disease and infected them all. And I arrived in their country perfectly healthy, and they infected me!

I really hope I don’t get fired. Or, y’know, die.

This just in: Clare has just come up to see me, and we sat in our pyjamas and coughed miserably at each other. The good news, however, is that they’re closing the school until at least the end of next week, as about half the kids and several of the teachers are now off sick. One little boy from one of my classes (the one from yesterday’s post, who sneezed on me) is actually in hospital, poor thing. The school was just a breeding ground for germs, disinfectant man or no disinfectant man! So at least I now have the best part of a week to try to recover without feeling guilty about not being at work…

Magic Moments: Classroom Edition

Child (in a lesson about the difference between “a” and “the”): Teacha is the pineapple!

Me: No, Teacher is *a* pineapple.

Class dissolves into giggles.

Me: Hang on, what?! I am not a pineapple! (confused) Why are you calling me a pineapple?

Delighted laughter.

Me (roaring): Teacher is not a pineapple!

Obviously this is the point where you turn around and there’s a confused colleague standing in the doorway. And it’s even worse when they just leave immediately without even speaking, as this one did.


Angry, sulky child: babbles in Korean.

Me: English!

Child: more Korean, glaring defiantly.

Me: English!!

Child: more Korean.

Me: Two can participate in such an activity as this, my young protégé. And please bear in mind that at some point in the foreseeable future I will, through application and determination, be able to understand at least a modicum of your language, but an infant with an attitude as repugnant as yours shall surely never progress to even the most basic level of comprehension of my native tongue. Bearing this in mind, it would be advisable for you to stop your whinging right this instant. If you fail to comply, I will write you a terrible report card and your parents will lock you in the basement, where you will no doubt be nibbled upon by rats and crawled over by roaches. Capiche?

Child (lost after “two”): stunned silence.

Me: Now, everybody, page 5…


Me: Please don’t sneeze on me.

Child: What?

Me: Please – don’t – sneeze – on – me.

Child (genuinely confused): But Teacha, I not on you. On chair! I sneeze on chair.


Me (teaching about telling the time): Now, the big hand is at 12 and the little hand is at 9. What time is it?

Child: 45 o’clock.


Child: I don’t like hospital.

Me: Why not?

Child: Because I don’t like noodles.

Me: Do they give you noodles to eat at the hospital?

Child (perplexed): What? No, *noodles*!

Me: Noodles?

Child: Noodles! In hospital, doctor put noodles in my arms! Hurt!

Me: Ah. I think you mean needles…


Child: Teacha, why you smell?

Me: What?!

Child: You smell, Teacha! Why you smell?

Me (offended and a little paranoid): I don’t smell! Do I?

Child (watching me sniff my clothes): No, no, you *smell*, Teacha! Why you smell?

Me (starting to get annoyed): It’s rude to call someone smelly! Stop it!

All children joining in: No, Teacha, *smell*! Smell!! You were smelling!

They all pull big, wide smiles and point at their faces.

Me: Oh, *smile*…


Unclean, unclean!

Korea is, as I have mentioned previously, unhealthily obsessed with Swine Flu.

Apparently a Canadian teacher in Seoul was recently fired when he caught Swine Flu. He didn’t go into school when he started feeling ill. He went to the hospital to be tested. When he tested positive, he stayed home until he was completely better and no longer contagious. Parental paranoia being what it is in Korea, however, meant that the matter didn’t end there, as it should have done. Apparently unable to understand the phrase “no longer contagious”, the parents didn’t want the poor guy near their kids any more. Once a Swine Flu victim, always a Swine Flu threat, it would seem. The school told him not to come back yet, even though he was perfectly healthy – and when he (quite rightly) asked to be paid for this forced absence, they fired him!

This is worrying.

All across the country, more schools are closing every day as children and teachers fall ill with alleged “Swine Flu”. Today, it finally hit our school. Six children from one class were absent, five from another, four from another. Clare fell ill during the day and went home sick. The director is coughing and sneezing and wearing a mask. Every day for the past week, every child has had his or her temperature taken to check for fever as they enter the school (after zapping their hands under the high-tech UV hand cleanser thingy, of course). The Korean teachers and staff look harrassed and highly-strung. It is a wee bit chaotic.

Trying to provide a presence of calm in the midst of mass hysteria, I collected my first class from their homeroom and took them down to the gym, away from their homeroom teacher who was refusing to emerge from behind the safety of a large, folded bathtowel pressed over her (masked) mouth and nose. Today, I began, getting them seated around me on the floor, we’re going to…

And with that, the principal marched in with another class. They were followed by every single class in the school. Suddenly, I was surrounded by far more children than I’d expected to be when I started my class. Bemused, I stuck my head out into the corridor. What on earth is going on? I asked Alex, who looked just as confused as me, a Korean teacher having swept his class out from under his nose and brought them down to the gym. We found Jennifer, the director, and demanded an explantion.

Whole school is being disinfected, she informed us. Oh, for the love of patience and sanity.

The AntiswineAnd so the men in masks and white coats came in with spray tanks and doused the entire place. It was kind of spooky. Oh, and did I mention ridiculous? I mean, come on! If the sick people in the school really are suffering from Swine Flu, won’t they have been just as likely to pass it on by sneezing all over each other? And isn’t it likely that even if all the Swine Flu-infected people have been sent home, they’ve already passed it on to several others, who just aren’t showing symptoms yet, and who will happily go around contaminating everything again within seconds of it being disinfected?

We’re meant to be taking the children trick-or-treating on Friday, but now it might not be happening because the parents are making noises about the danger of letting us take the kids outside into that nasty, Swine Flu-infected world. Permit me a: WTF?!!! Surely the open air would be much safer than a classroom crowded with snottery infants and potentially lethal foreign teachers?

I don’t get it.

I. Do. Not. Get. It.


Alex and I went out for dinner tonight to a Korean Grill restaurant down the road.

This was my first real Korean restaurant experience, and experience is certainly the right word. I’ve been too intimidated by what I’ve seen from peering through open doors to go to one all by myself – and certainly, I don’t know nearly enough Korean words yet to be able to do so without some difficulty. Alex has been here longer than me, and has mastered reading Hangul, so even though he might not know what most things are, at least he can say them! And he took me to a restaurant where he’s gone on his own several times, so I just left all the ordering to him.

It was a warm, cosy place with a friendly and laid back atmosphere, and no menus – only a board on the wall with a short list. That’s because it was a grill restaurant, so you basically just pick one of the few meat options and everything else automatically comes with it.

No sooner had we sat down than a waitress appeared with two huge trays of stuff. She proceeded to cover the table with banchan (side dishes), from shiitake mushrooms sizzling on a little hotplate, to kimchi, to dipping sauces, soup, and raw vegetables like spring onions, whole garlic cloves, beansprouts, and various lettuce and cabbage leaves. This picture was taken after just the first of the two trays. We sat there, our table laden with food, and then the waitress came to take our order! I like this country.

Before ordering

Before ordering

We got what I think was samgyeopsal. It consisted of small, thick chunks of pork belly meat, and it was brought to the table raw, in a bowl. We watched as a waiter filled the hole in the centre of our table with red hot coals, and then fitted a grill over it. Then we threw on the raw meat and grilled it ourselves. It smelt (and sounded!) fantastic. And it all felt very relaxed and fun, too. We added some things from our banchan dishes to the grill, like huge pieces of raw onion, kimchi, and some garlic cloves.

Samgyeopsal (and a lone kimchi leaf)

Samgyeopsal (and a lone kimchi leaf)

Eating it has the kind of “ritual” experience that I enjoy so much about Japanese sushi (soy sauce, wasabi, ginger…) and Chinese pancakes with crispy duck (duck, vegetables, hoisin sauce…). You grab one of the many available leaves (I don’t know what any of them were other than some kind of lettuce and cabbage), and hold it in one hand. Then with your chopsticks in the other hand, you take a piece of the meat, dip it in various sauces, and place it on the leaf. You can add whatever vegetables take your fancy, and then you wrap it up into a little parcel, dip it in soy sauce or one of the oily mixtures, and eat. I am not a professional food critic, so I will simply conclude by saying: yum yum!

We shared a bottle of soju, the Korean national drink (tastes a bit like vodka), as well, and on our way out we stopped to grab ourselves a free ice cream cone each from the self service freezer and stand at the door.

It was a really fun night. I think I may want to eat out all the time, now! And what’s more, I can probably afford to. If you choose the right places, it’s really about the same price as cooking for yourself every night…

All the cool kids are singing it…

Korean pop music is great. Not in a “this is quality music” sort of way, but in a cheesy, feel-good pop sort of way, in the manner of Steps, S Club 7, Hanson, and that kind of thing. Clare absolutely hates it, and I think she may think less of me as a person since I accidentally started dancing when we walked past a shop that was blaring a typically cringeworthy yet chirpy number the other night.

The kids here have their crazes re: pop music just as they do back home. I remember the Saturday Night epidemic that spread around the country when a certain Whigfield topped the charts. I remember doing the Macarena time and time again with my friends. Gina G, Ooh, Ah, Just A Little Bit, anyone? And right now, in Korea, everybody’s talking about BEG’s Dirty.

The song is actually a piss-take of a fairly ordinary, standard pop song (you can watch the original by clicking on this link, if you wish). I didn’t realise that it was a parody the first time I saw the video, so I was slightly bemused by lyrics such as “I’ll clean my armpit hair”, initially believing this to be standard Korean songwriting. All children under the age of 10 are in love with this song. School corridors are filled with small girls doing very funny dance routines. I walk into a classroom and find them rehearsing the lyrics and practising their moves. They can’t get enough of it. And call me immature, but I’m loving it too!

Here’s a version with English subtitles so you can enjoy the (seriously ridiculous) lyrics:

And just so you can get a flavour of what this epidemic feels like in my daily life, here’s the reaction of a couple of my elementary students to finding that they’re being filmed. It’s like they just can’t control it…

Table Manners

I eat Korean food much more often than anything else, partly because it’s what I am served every day for lunch in school, and partly because it’s much more widely available than real food Western food.

Sitting down to lunch at school.

Sitting down to lunch at school.

Lunches at school can be hit and miss. I’ve only had one so far that I absolutely could not bring myself to finish, and I really did have a fair attempt at it before my stomach started heaving. Mind you, I was feeling ill with my head cold to start with. But when I poked curiously at my soup with my spoon as I do every day (it’s basically water with a variety of unpredictable “things” in it, which mostly settle at the bottom until you disturb them), I found myself confronted by random fish body parts, including a spookily staring eye. This was not good. But I was hungry, and I was shivery, and the soup is the only warm part of the meal… so, bravely, I ate as much of it as I could, careful not to redisturb the mutilated fish carcasses. Sadly, the side dishes that day involved the original type of kimchi (which I do not like) and some really unpleasant spice-soaked tofu. So I basically ate my rice and the water from my soup for lunch that day.

Usually, however, I’ll finish my soup and fill up on a few banchan (side dishes). And some of these are pretty delicious! My favorite so far is Gim, which is the seaweed stuff you’d roll sushi in – but it’s been roasted in sesame oil, and is lovely and light and flakey. It’s kinda complicated to eat it like the Koreans do, as you’re meant to place it in your rice bowl, then do a difficult chopsticks manoeuvre to scoop up some rice inside the Gim, and eat it all at once. It’s addictive – I could live on this stuff.

As for table etiquette, I’m slowly but surely mastering the chopsticks, although it’ll be a while yet before I’m absolutely confident that whatever I’ve just picked up is not going to drop on to the table as soon as I try to transfer it to my mouth. But in general, I’m beginning to fit in a bit better at the lunch table – with the exception of one thing I’ve noticed. I’d read in an article somewhere that it’s OK to make noises when you’re eating “messy” food. So slurp your soup or your noodles, basically. However, I have now realised that it’s not just OK – it’s the way Koreans (at least the ones I know!) eat everything. Not only do they slurp messy foods, but they do something we Westerners would consider very bad table manners indeed: they smack their lips as they eat. Actually, the noise really comes from the tongue rather than the lips, but I don’t know if you can say “smacking your tongue”. Anyway, what I mean is, they keep their mouths open and chew noisily. It really, really bothered me at first, but I’m starting to get used to it. I haven’t asked anyone about it as I don’t want to appear rude and offend anyone, but I’m interested to know whether it’s just that it’s not considered rude and that’s just how they naturally eat, or if it’s something significant, like a sign of appreciation to the cook, as I have encountered a few different kinds of these in various countries.

Honestly, absolutely everything is different. It’s like having to relearn everything you were taught as a child. Fascinating, but a daunting task!

Killer Lilies

It’s extremely frustrating not being able to speak, read, or understand the language of the place where you live.

I can’t quickly nip into the grocery store for something, because it will take me a long time to painstakingly search the store for the item I want – I can’t read the aisle signs, I can’t read the product labels, I can’t ask for help. I can’t express what I want from service people, meaning I can’t go for a haircut, can’t catch a bus, can’t ask what things are in a restaurant (where I can’t read the menu). I can’t communicate with my work colleagues. This is perhaps the most frustrating one of all.

The homeroom teachers and the foreign teachers often cross paths and have to request favours from each other or ask for information about something. It ain’t easy. Yeah, we talk to each other a lot, said Clare with a sigh, which means that we use a lot of miming and pointing and weird gesturing. In fact, I’ve found that the brighter kids in my two classes can actually speak much better English than their homeroom teachers.

For this reason, I chose to sit beside a child rather than an adult as we travelled by bus for a field trip to Jangtaesan, a mountain just outside the city. He was a great little tour guide, pointing out the sights along the way and describing them for me as best he could. This is subway station, he explained, pointing. Subway is big train under ground.

What’s that? I asked interestedly as the bus started the climb up the mountain and I saw long, black sheets covered with what looked like sand, only thicker. This is where rice grows, explained my little guide. See, green in fields? And is cut by… by tractor, and here drying! It was all very interesting, but there were so many things I was curious about that I would have loved an English-speaking guide beside me. More so when we arrived, and my little group was introduced to its forest guide – a pleasant, smiling woman who pointed things out to the kids, explained things, asked questions, and caused some excited “ahhhhh!” noises. It was very frustrating not to understand any of the information.

However, it was beautiful. We saw a praying mantis, and huge stick insects, and colourful dragonflies as big as birds. Then we walked over a marshy, swampy area using a wooden platform, which was about a foot above the murky, lily-covered water. The guide talked for a long time, and I nudged the little boy who happened to be holding my hand. What did she say about  the water? I asked him, pulling him to the side to peer over the rail. He dragged me back, looking alarmed. No, no, Hayley Teacha! he hissed, clinging on to my hand. She said there is alligators and crocodiles in water! Is very dangerous!

Picture stolen from colleague!

Picture stolen from colleague

What!?! I almost yelled, forgetting to correct his verb conjugation in my panic. Was this woman insane? She was leading a group of tiny, bite-sized infants across a deadly swamp filled with big toothy things that could leap out and catch about 4 of them in one go. Nervously, I peered into the water, trying to stay in the centre of the platform. Jennifer, I called out nervously to my boss, as she wandered past with her camera, what did the guide say about alligators?

Nothing, said Jennifer, looking surprised.

Then… then what was she talking about? I asked suspiciously. What’s in the water?

Lilies! said Jennifer, pointing.

I turned to give my young “guide” a rollicking, but he had already run away, howling with laughter. Rats. Taken in by a 7-year-old who can barely speak English. That’s a record, even for me…