Flour World?

Today we went on a field trip to a very bizarre but fabulously fun place.

We foreigners generally don’t have a clue where we’re going for these, and the explanation we got this time was no better. “Flour”, was all Jennifer said when we asked, in a tone of voice that said she thought that was perfectly self-explanatory. We thought maybe we were going to a mill or a bakery or something.

I became slightly uncertain about this theory when everyone started taking off their socks. Taking off your shoes is normal in many indoor places here, but not your socks. Then the trousers got rolled up, and the kids listened to an introduction by some members of staff while I looked on, still none the wiser. Take your socks off! commanded Jennifer as she walked past me.

And before I know it, I’m walking barefoot along a passageway ankle-deep in flour.

We emerged into a room of, well, flour. Big heaps of flour, floury footprints, and some more flour. The kids gathered round the flour hills and were shown how to paint pictures using flour…

…and how to sieve it to make a floury canvas…

…on which to draw pictures!It was great fun, and of course everyone ended up covered in flour. Then, looking like a crowd of little ghosts, they were shown into the next room, where everyone was given dough with which to make cookies.

The next room involved playing with huge lumps of dough. I recieved about a dozen necklaces, bracelets, and rings made out of dough. The girls said “Teacher, you are princess!”. :) And finally, we were shown into what I can only describe as a large room filled with seeds. It looked like a beach, only indoors, with seeds instead of sand, and no sea. That’s me being buried in the seeds. Everyone (teachers included) had a wonderful time rolling in the seeds, playing with the toys, digging, having seed fights, and all the kinds of things you normally do when you’re in a room full of seeds.

And then, as we were leaving, we passed through this little chamber where we had all the remaining seeds and flour blown off our clothes.

Mind you, I changed my clothes after work and a shower of seeds rained down on the floor.

But sure doesn’t that happen to everyone now and again?

Let It Be

The children at school love to sing. They pick up new songs incredibly quickly, and can remember all the words even when they struggle to remember simple spoken sentences. I’ve found a way to bond with my new classes, by splitting the textbook work into sections, and spending the time in between those singing and chatting with them while we do something simple and fun, like colouring. They love it when I sing along with them (and I think they like the fact that I can happily sit there and colour in just like they do!).

Fortunately, I too love to sing. I got a lovely message on the school website the other day, from the mother of one of the quietest boys I teach. It’s hard to get him to chat, but he loves music. “Every day after school”, wrote his mum, “he sings songs from Musical class and teaches them to his sister”.

To my delight, he also did this at home after learning the song in school:

I think I have a new favourite. ;) These children are still at the stage where writing one word in English can sometimes take a frustratingly long time (tongue out, several letters back-to-front), yet this little boy spent his evening voluntarily writing out lyrics, in English, just for fun. Isn’t it amazing what the Beatles can do?!

Eh, these kids ain’t so bad…

Konglish: a beginner’s guide

I’ve been meaning to tell you about Konglish for ages now.

In case it’s not obvious, Korean + English = Konglish.

Konglish is occasionally frustrating, often confusing, and almost always entertaining. It’s one of the main reasons for misunderstandings between Koreans and foreigners. And for an English teacher, it’s a daily battle that will probably never be won.

Some English words have been adopted by the Korean language, just as they are, to mean the things that they, erm, mean. Game. Sticker. Computer. These are a few that I hear all the time in school when my kids are talking amongst themselves. However, for the most part, the words have taken on new meanings, so that they now mean something completely different than they do to native speakers – or, even more confusingly, there’s only a very slight, subtle difference, so that you think you’re both talking about the same thing. That’s Konglish. English words, but with a new Korean meaning.

I decided to put together a short list of some of the Konglish words I know, along with their meanings. Hopefully it’ll give you an idea of the confusion that Konglish can (and does!) cause on a daily basis when native English speakers struggle to learn these new meanings and Korean speakers struggle to understand that the words originally meant something else before they came to Korea.

When they say…………….. they mean

Sick……………………………………Hurt or broken

(e.g. “My arm is sick!”…..”I’ve hurt my arm” or “My arm is broken”)

Cider………………………Sweetened soda water (think Sprite or 7Up)

Handle……………………………….Steering wheel

Same-same…………………… “They are the same thing”

(e.g. “L and R in Korean, same-same!”, or “Beer, lager, same-same!”)

Service…………………………..Free (as in “it’s on the house!”)

Handphone……………………..Cellphone/Mobile phone

(pronounced hen-duh-pone)


(pronounced “ah-pah-tuh”)

Apartment………………………….Whole apartment building

Eye shopping………………………Window shopping

One shot!……………………………..Bottoms up!

Hair rinse…………………………….Hair conditioner

Skinship…………………………Making out – kissing, touching

Fighting!………..A shout of encouragement, like “Go team!” or “Let’s do it!”


(e.g. “I slept 8 times last night”…. “I slept for 8 hours last night”)

Let’s Dutch pay!……………………….Let’s go Dutch!

So-so………………………………..Boring, uninteresting

(e.g. “It was very, very so-so”…..”It was very, very boring”)

Yoghurt……………………………..A thin liquid yoghurt drink

Yoplait………………………………..Yoghurt (any brand)

Pop song………………………………..Any song in English

Cunning………………………………..Cheating/copying work

(e.g. “Teacher!! John is cunning!”…”Teacher!! John is cheating/copying!”)

Overeat………………………………..Throw up, vomit

Dessert………………………………..Cup of tea after meal

My favourite ones are “Fighting!” (which my friends and I tend to shout quite a lot if we’re playing a game), “One shot!” (also used often by foreigners here, as you can imagine), and “overeat” (just because it’s so very strange!). Most of the words on my list have caused me various degrees of confusion during my time here, from the mild puzzlement when I couldn’t find conditioner for several weeks and then worked out that the “rinse” next to the shampoo wasn’t actually the purple stuff old ladies use, to bewilderment when I kept getting lemonade when I asked for cider, to sheer confuzzledom when I couldn’t find my friend’s apartment because of course I was looking for an individual apartment numbered 404 instead of a whole building with that number. I was in and out of several apartment blocks looking for a door that said 404 before I worked that one out!

I find new more Konglish words just about every day, and often don’t realise that they’re Konglish until much later. Like “so-so”, for example. People say that all the time, and when they put “very” in front of it I’d always assumed it was just a grammatical error. It was only recently that someone looked puzzled when I corrected them (the children just tend to accept it without questioning), and I discovered that Koreans think the word means something slightly different from our meaning of “neither great nor terrible”.

It means boring, said my friend, so why can’t I say ‘very so-so’ just like ‘very boring’? Boring… so-so… same-same!

Where I’m from, they discourage this…

…going to the doctor for every little cough and sneeze, that is. Not in Korea! Oh no – in fact, here, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

So there I am in the doctor’s chair, much like a dentist’s chair only in a doctor’s office and with no little sink thing to spit into.

The doctor at the ENT clinic speaks no English, which is somewhat surprising since I thought they all had to know at least some English for their medical studies, but anyway. I go in, he says “Anja!”, and I obediently sit. My boss describes my symptoms in a couple of sentences. The doctor says something, and my boss asks me “How is the stomach ache?”.

“Fine. Good. No. None. Isn’t. I have no stomach ache.” I reply perfectly naturally – I’ve got these super-clear responses down to a fine art now, eliminating potential confusion wherever I can. She translates for the doctor, and he shoves something up my nose, sprays something (why?!), peers up, and then thrusts a metal paddle thing into my mouth, pressing down my tongue and looking at my throat. He moves the metal paddle around a bit, somewhat roughly, until it reaches the specific part of the back of my mouth where it hits my gag reflex, and I, well, gag. He steps back hurriedly, and he, the nurse, and my boss all look appalled.

You shoved the bloody thing down my throat, you jackass!! I want to yell. I probably could, since only one of them would come close to understanding me.Instead, I just choke a little more and glare resentfully at him as he says something to Jennifer. Next thing I know, I’m being bundled back out to reception to pay the (thankfully small) fee for the whole 30 second experience. Next, to the pharmacy, where they take another insignificant sum off me in exchange for three days’ worth of tablets.

It is infuriating. They have no concept of over-the-counter medication here. You have to go to the doctor every time you want medicine, and each time you will receive only enough for three days. I mean, what use is that? What do people with heart conditions, diabetes, and other long-term medicine-controlled conditions do? How can I go to the doctor every three days for the entire length of time I’m here? I ask Jennifer on the way home, close to tears, trying yet again to explain the concept of over-the-counter drugs and repeat prescriptions to her. After work, she says blankly, as if failing to see the issue. As if it is a perfectly normal part of life to go to the doctor twice a week in order to control a simple allergy condition that most likely needs daily medication.

But we will see if the pills work, she says in response to my frustrated gaze. If you are still sick on Monday, we go back, and maybe he change the medication.


Am I being totally unreasonable, here? Is it unrealistic of me to not expect these pills to cure me forever of my allergies? Surely it’s more likely that they will clear my symptoms up, and then they’ll just recur again as usual in a week or so? How am I any better off if I have to wait until I’m suffering again, go to the doctor, get more medication, wait for it to take effect, get better, then get sick again and have to repeat the whole ridiculous process? It’s no different from what I’m doing now with copious amounts of orange juice and a nasal spray and painkillers and a lot of tissues. I just want tablets that I can take on a regular basis – a prevention as much as a cure – so that I don’t have to get ill every other week. I don’t want to have to be ill and hurting before I can get something to help me. I want to stop it happening in the first place, or at least have the medication to hand for when I feel the first signs.

In Korea, this is apparently impossible. Every single Korean I know has told me solemnly that yes, you can get some sort of medication over the counter, but they won’t work. You must go to doctor. See how often they make you come back – they must know what they’re doing!

Making money, you eejits!!!! I want to scream. Again, I do not. I just need one Korean who will hear me. One Korean who will tell me which box of pills in the pharmacy is the box of decongestants. I don’t care if they believe them to be useless, I don’t care if I’m violating some kind of cultural code by not visiting the doctor before buying a box of Sudafed equivalent. I want the drugs; I need the drugs; JUST GIVE ME THE DRUGS!!!!

[If you speak Korean, please, please take pity on me and tell me the name of a decongestant I can ask for at the pharmacy. Please, please.]

Something in the air

Much as it’s become rather more stressful and tiring than at the beginning, I still love my job, for the most part. Teaching English as a foreign language feels like it’s what I was born to do. I don’t see myself giving up and leaving the country because of work problems. In fact, if my job got so bad I couldn’t take it any more, I’d just get my recruiter to find me another one.

No, if I get sick of this country and leave, it will be for another reason entirely. Namely the air.

I’ve tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to keep my blogging about this to a minimum, but I’ve really been in quite bad health since I came here. Sinus infections hit me every couple of weeks, lasting for around a week each time – a week where I can’t breathe properly, my eyes water constantly, and I suffer from sneezing fits and sinus headaches. I can actually feel the pollution when I breathe the cold, dry air outside. And inside isn’t much better – most public buildings have those horrible big contraptions that blow out hot air, and the Ondol heating system that’s everywhere in Korea. They make the air so dry that it’s almost impossible for me to breathe. I’ve had to leave bars, shops, and even the cinema because of this.

And now, finally, the outside temperature has started rising and the rain has begun to grace us with its presence, making me hope for a break from my ill health, and what happens? Yellow Dust Storm season, that’s what.

Yellow Dust is a big problem in Korea. Thanks to desertification (caused by overpopulation and overgrazing) in China’s Gobi Desert, huge clouds of sand are stirred up by springtime storms, and swept east. Picking up pollutants from the notoriously bad air in China, they arrive in Korea in the form of fine, yellow dust particles which are inhaled into the lungs and can cause serious respiratory problems. Sometimes, the clouds of dust are so thick that they can obscure the sun and limit visibility to not more than a few hundred metres.

The government monitors yellow dust levels and issues orders to close schools when there’s a particularly bad storm, and everyone is asked to remain indoors for their own safety. They even send a warning text message to every mobile phone! However, from March until about the end of May, the dust is always present, even if levels aren’t high enough to merit such a warning.

And it is horrible.

All the cars on the streets are covered in a layer of streaky yellow grime, sand, and dust, and it seriously concerns me to realise that I’m breathing all that dirt and grit into my lungs (righteous ex-smoker speaking now!). I constantly feel dehydrated even though I’m drinking several  litres of water every day. And now I’ve noticed that every time I eat or drink, the food or water tastes like chemicals. Horrible, I tell you.

I’ve given in and started wearing a mask as much as possible, so time will tell if that makes any difference. I don’t want to leave Korea… and it would be a shame if I felt that I had no other choice but to do so, because of pollution. I hope it doesn’t come to that. This week, I developed a chest infection as a result of the latest sinus/breathing problems, and I’m just miserable. I’ll rant about the ridiculous getting-over-the-counter-medication rigmarole in another post (beginning to feel like I’ve complained enough for today!), but for now I’ll just say that the ENT doctor caused me to gag on the metal mirror thingy, and I almost puked on him, with my boss watching, and I only got a pointless three days’ worth of drugs out of it. Again.

No one else seems to be affected quite as regularly and severely as me, and I never suffered from allergies until I got here. It’s sod’s law that when I find a country and a job and a way of life that I really love, I lose the ability to breathe while doing so!

How I look these days

1, 2, 3, 5…

I was very confused when I first came to Korea, because of – well, because of lots of things, actually, and to be honest there are always plenty of opportunities for fresh confusion to arise.

But some things baffle me more than others, at least until I find out what the craic is with them (and often, even afterwards). And so it was that I found myself in an elevator* one day, looking in great bewilderment at the number panel. I was headed for the fourth floor. Can you see my difficulty?

In the end, I went to three and then took the stairs, and just put it down as another example of inexplicably odd things in Korea. But I kept encountering it. The fourlessness, I mean (but yes, also the inexplicably odd things in general). I almost got used to it, but not quite. There’s always that initial moment of faint surprise when you see a fourless number panel; a sense that something is not quite right with the world around you.

Anyway, arriving at Smile – located on the fourth floor of a building downtown – the other night, we crowded into the elevator and shared the moment of discovery. Um… there *is* no four! said the newest arrival, sounding surprised.

Just press three and we’ll walk up a floor, I said, but Dave shook his head. No, no… haven’t you discovered the secret four button? he asked with a grin.

Oh, yes – it’s ‘F’, isn’t it? said someone else. The rest of us just looked blankly at them.

So, now that I’m in the know, I can inform you that Korea is suffering from a case of tetraphobia. The fear of… the number four. I love this country. The Korean word for ‘4’ is ‘사’ (‘sa’), and it is pronounced exactly the same as the word for ‘death’, so they’re scared of it. Very often, the fourth floor of a building is skipped entirely, so that 5 simply follows 3 – particularly in a building like a hospital, where you really don’t want to take any risks. In other buildings, there’s a fourth floor, but no number 4 in the elevator. Instead, the button is labelled ‘F’ for the nice safe English word ‘four’.

Occasionally this button can be found between 3 and 5, but most often it seems to be stuck away in the corner somewhere so that you’d never dream of pressing it unless you knew the story.

This is a very weird one for me. I know that there’s a similar issue with the number 13 in our own culture (although I don’t think people go quite as far as eliminating floors or number buttons), but I’ve always found that one ridiculous, too. I don’t understand how anyone can truly believe that a number can somehow curse them just by being written down or otherwise present. A mindless superstition is one thing, like throwing spilled salt over your shoulder, or not walking under ladders, but really believing it when you stop and think about it?!

And that’s the thing. In Korea, some very unusual things are taken incredibly seriously by just about everyone. If you instinctively laugh, thinking they’re having you on, you’ll be met by a half-confused, half-insulted stare as you then try, horrified, to pretend you weren’t laughing, and say things like “oh, really?” in your most serious and interested tones.

I’m very much looking forward to telling you about a common household appliance that murders people in their sleep, but that can wait until another day.

*I know, it’s a lift. I can’t speak English any more, just American. I actually have to go through my posts before I publish them, putting ‘u’s into ‘color’ and ‘flavor’.

In which I lose my superhero power

I am undefeated at this one! I announce gleefully as someone selects Wii Boxing as the next game.

A group of us are hanging out at Smile, and I’ve never forgotten how impressive I was when I last encountered Wii Boxing. Not only did I knock Terri out in about 10 seconds, but I thrashed everyone else in the group, even the men who fancied themselves as fighters (and were a bit put out by my successive victories).

A few people express doubt about my boxing abilities, and I  (rather stupidly) react with more bragging and bravado than can ever be advisable. Up I go, against Sally, who has never played the game before and is a very light and delicate sort of girl.

She knocks me out in about 10 seconds.

The shame is crippling.

I go on to be beaten by two more people, and in the end I slink back to the sofa to mourn the loss of my fighting abilities. Maybe you had more aggression in you the last time, says Sally comfortingly as the others jeer cruelly. This is quite likely. I think back to when I first got here, and remember the comfort I got from punching the air like a lunatic. It felt good to be letting the rage out. And it made me a champion Wii boxer.

And so it seems that being happy and content has its negative points, and I no longer have the stored-up hurt and hatred necessary to beat up my friends. Sigh. Instead, I find myself crammed into a little room with ten of them, cuddling a big fluffy teddy bear and singing silly and/or soppy songs on the karaoke. At about 1am, we’re all singing this one together, and swaying along.

Being able to beat up my friends was probably better for my street cred. ;)