“Chin-cha?!” and other stories.

I sometimes wonder what it’s going to be like for me, language-wise, when I’m no longer in Korea. It only struck me recently just how many Korean words I naturally throw into my everyday speech these days, to the extent where they come more naturally to me than the equivalent English words. Most of them started out as something I or one of my friends did jokingly, but they gradually caught on and became part of our vocabulary. Want to know how to talk to me next time you see me? Here are some words you can expect to hear!

괜찮아. – Kwen-chan-ah. (It’s OK / Don’t worry about it / No problem.)

This has actually replaced “OK” for most foreigners I know. We don’t say “Don’t worry about it!” if a friend is apologising for something – we say “It’s kwen-chan-ah!”. We don’t say “It’s no problem!” when someone’s thanking us gratefully – we say “It’s kwen-chan-ah!”. We don’t say “I’m fine” if we’ve been upset and are trying to brush it off – we say “It’s kwen-chan-ah!”. What’s that you say? You don’t get why we would do this? Ah well, it’s kwen-chan-ah!

헐! – Hall! (Difficult to translate expression of disbelief)

Most of us learned this one from our students. They would all make this strange noise when we said “…now, for homework…”, or “test time!”, that to the untrained ear sounded a bit like a depressed moan. When you’ve heard it enough, you realise that it’s actually a word – it’s an exclamation of surprise or disbelief according to most sources I can find online. Like “OMG!” or “I can’t believe you just said that!”. However, in the context we teachers most often hear it, it’s definitely more about dismay… “Are you freakin’ kidding me?!”

주세요. – __________ joo-say-yo. (Give me ___________, please.)

This one confuses me, as it’s often translated as “please” but actually means something closer to “give me”. I’m not entirely sure that you’re meant to use it as “please” in any other context. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from doing so anyway. I had one friend tell me to shut up, and then add a polite “joo-say-yo”. :) It’s also a very useful word in restaurants, because there’s an unlimited supply of most things on the table, and you just have to ask for more if you want the plate refilled. Kimchi joo-say-yo! Bap (rice) joo-say-yo!

진짜?! – Chin-cha?! (Really?! Seriously?!)

This is one of my favourite Korean words. I only realised recently just how often I ask “Really?!” in conversations now, in places where before I would just have nodded or said “right” or “I see”.  The Korean response is always much more surprised-sounding, and they manage to work “진짜?!” into just about every verbal exchange.  From “I was taken aboard an alien spacecraft last night.” Chin-cha?! to  “I’m having rice for dinner.” Chin-cha?! there is no difference in the level of surprise in the question. It’s quite cute, and also fun to say.

없어요. – Ops-aw-yo. (It doesn’t exist / There isn’t any / It’s not here / about a million other similar meanings)

Another of my favourites, but I don’t need to write anything about it here, because I once wrote a whole post about it.

어떻게? Aw-taw-kay? (How? / What? / Why? / What on earth…?!)

This one literally means “how?” and is used as such, but as with many Korean words, it’s often used to convey something slightly different, too. I’ve found it to be something of a surprised, frustrated, or confused exclamation. Examples? Kids will often moan “Awww, aw-taw-kayyyyyy?” when confronted with a confusing topic in their books. The cooking lady at school gasped “Oh, aw-taw-kay?!” when Alex spilled boiling water on me last week and I gave a very loud, very startling scream. The Korean teachers murmur “Aw-taw-kay?” when they’re a bit confused about what the foreign teachers are trying to ask them.

빨리 빨리! – Bally-bally! (Quickly! / Hurry!)

My favourite usage of this was when some of us were coming home from Busan a couple of months ago, and decided to have our own version of The Amazing Race in order to settle an argument about whether it was faster to take a taxi or the subway to the train station. In high spirits and fits of giggles, my team flagged down a taxi and piled in excitedly, determined to win. Yawk! (Station!) we announced in a somewhat chaotic manner to the surprised taxi driver, amidst much chatter. And, um… bally-bally, joo-say-yo! added South African Friend Three with more confidence than the sentence probably deserved. The driver laughed, and obligingly ran several sets of lights for us as we cheered in delight. Result!

—–

The problem with all this is that while it’s fun (and useful) for us to throw these words into our conversations, it does become a bit too natural after a while. We’re not supposed to speak Korean to the children, but sometimes it just slips out, now that it’s natural to respond “Chin-cha?!” or “Kwen-chan-ah!”! And when we do, we instantly regret it, because they are super-excited by the fact that we know one of their words. They shriek and they laugh and they yell.  Teacher, Korean speaking? One more time, one more time!! All you can do is pretend not to hear them, bite your tongue, and try to move on before they have you repeating random Korean words like some sort of performing monkey.

It’s kwen-chan-ah!

I hope I’m old before I die.

Ugh, I am a total wreck.

For a start, this is what the weather is mostly like these days:

Often higher, never lower. The only reason today’s temperature is showing as being in the 20s is that I’m writing this at night, when it is apparently capable of dropping below 30. This probably doesn’t seem all that bad to those of you in other parts of the world, but I was not at all accustomed to this sort of thing in Ireland. Also, I’m not exactly the cold-blooded type. Give me 15°C and I’ll be warm enough in a t-shirt, thank you very much.

Then there’s the humidity, which is actually more oppressive than the heat. You step outside and your clothes stick to your skin before you’ve even had a chance to break out in a sweat from the heat. It’s sticky and clammy and a bit like sitting in a steam room, only fully clothed and trying to go about your daily routine. I don’t really understand how these things work, but some sites I checked out gave the temperature as being in the low 30s, but the “real feel” or “feels like” temperature as being around 40.That sounds about right to me!

Plus monsoon season is upon us, which means that you can’t step outside into a beautiful, sunny, cloudless day without carrying an umbrella – unless, like me, you quite enjoy walking in the torrential rain and sudden winds, just for a bit of respite from the normally relentless heaviness of the air.

Then there’s work, which is extremely exhausting and hugely rewarding by turns – much like running several marathons back-to-back, I imagine.

But mostly, there’s the fact that while being a teacher at home involves being a sensible, mature, grown-up sort of person, here in Korea it seems to mean working like a dog all week and then acting like you’re a teenager on holiday in Ibiza at the weekend. Irish Friend One ruefully described his behaviour this past weekend as having “partied like an 18 year old”, which I think is a fairly accurate way to put it for all concerned. I’m trying to justify it to myself. It was great fun, and we all need that! After all, I missed out on the carefree party days of university, because I was living in a romantic little bubble with my then-fiancé, old before my time, with no real desire to make lots of friends and be a crazy student. I’m just making up for lost time, that’s all!

However, the sad fact remains that a decade has passed, and I am 28, not 18. I am not cut out for this lifestyle.  I stayed out from Friday night till Sunday morning, surviving on only 2 hours of sleep and a bowl of pasta, and it’s now Tuesday night and I still feel like a zombie. If I was 18, I’d probably have headed out again last night!

As it is, last night I almost got car sick in a taxi (I do partly blame the heat), only managed to eat half a bowl of soup all day, and finished the day by lying in a sweat on my bed with the aircon blasting cold air over me, clutching Eeyore and mumbling incoherently to myself about lesson plans and worksheets. Maybe it’s time to grow up and start acting my age.

Damn, I hope not…

Rollercoaster

Goal!

1-0.

Silence. Everyone gazes at the screen in pain as the Uruguay players hug each other in ecstacy and their fans cheer jubilantly. No one here moves. No one speaks. It is horrible. I kind of want to go home.

Goal!

1-1.

The whole place goes mental. Absolutely stark raving mad. It is like a lunatic asylum’s night out. I can’t hear my own hysterical yelling over the general roar, but I can feel my throat hurting and my hands and feet aching from furious stamping and clapping that I’m hardly aware of telling them to do. Everyone is on their feet, except me, because my nerves are so shot that I don’t trust my legs to hold me. A joyful Korean guy flings himself at me, catching me by surprise in a huge and not at all unpleasant bear hug before moving on to someone else. He knocks over American Friend Three, who was jumping up and down on the seat beside me, and now falls on top of me, still cheering. He turns the moment into a celebratory embrace rather than the “oh, crap, sorry, did I hurt you?” it would have been under any other circumstances. Drinks are going flying all over the place. People are soaked with beer. The match has resumed on the screen, and nobody even notices. My heart is racing. The world is fantastic, lovely, beautiful.

I could live off this atmosphere.

Goal!

2-1.

Silence. The joy and excitement of earlier, the thrill and anticipation of the near misses, the cheers and the chants have stopped. I don’t know what everyone’s doing now, because I have my head in my hands as if not looking will make it not real. Why do I feel so devastated? It’s only a game. It’s not even my country!

This atmosphere could kill me.

Final whistle.

People are pouring out into the streets. Taxis are lined up waiting to take the football watchers home. Girls are crying. Men are scowling gruffly and trying to look unaffected. A young boy in a red shirt is bawling his eyes out as his parents, with fake cheerfulness, try to console him. For the first time since I’ve been in Korea, I get into a taxi and the driver doesn’t speak a single word to me – just grunts when I dejectedly tell him where I live. We make the journey home in total silence. The excitement and hysteria and buzz of the past few weeks seems like a dream now. The air feels heavy with more than just heat and humidity. Everyone is sad.

It’s only a game. But for some strange reason, it’s utterly heartbreaking.

If at first you don’t succeed…

I started learning Korean last night.

This may sound like an odd statement coming from someone who’s been in Korea for nine months and has mentioned attending Korean lessons on several occasions throughout that time. However, Korean is a very, very hard language. Even the Koreans will tell you this. Actually, they’re kind of proud of the fact that they’re the only ones who can master it, whereas half the world seems to be able to pick up the silly little language that we speak.

Anyway, as seems to be a very common pattern amongst foreigners in Korea, I launched into my studies with great enthusiasm, spent hours on end learning grammar rules and conjugating verbs, and then gave up in total frustration and despondence when I realised that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t manage a basic conversation. Sod that, I don’t need to learn this stupid language, I declared in annoyance, committing to a life of miming, pointing, and painstakingly writing things down in hangul.

However, it’s just not practical. You feel like you’re missing out on so much when you can only speak English and so few of the locals can. I hate that the only Koreans I can have conversations with are the select few who’ve persevered with English, and it annoys me not to be able to chat with friendly taxi drivers and motherly ajummas. I don’t like not being able to answer basic questions in shops and restaurants. I especially hate not being able to express myself when something’s not right – like the taxi driver’s going the wrong way, or the restaurant got the order wrong.

And so, off to the opening class of a new Korean course I went, flanked by Terri and her sister, South African Friend… ah, heck, I don’t know. Three? This is just getting confusing. Anyway, the class was held in the teacher’s school – by day, she’s a kindergarten English teacher. So there we all were, sitting on tiny little coloured seats at miniscule desks, each one with a freshly sharpened pencil and an eraser on it. Suddenly the roles were very much reversed, and it’s amazing how quickly you can go from being a kindergarten teacher to, well, actually being at kindergarten. South African Friend Three and I got told off for giggling and scuffling with each other. The guy behind us was made to stand in the corner. All in good fun, obviously, but it was amusing to watch our demeanours change as we became the children instead of the teachers.

It also made me realise just how much we expect of those poor children. The teacher started off talking only in Korean, but soon gave up when we absolutely refused to try to understand her. The kids don’t have that option. Not only that, but even after she’d explained everything in English and written the answers on the board, we still stammered over them. And when she sneakily changed the order of the questions she was asking us, we didn’t even notice – we just read them off in the order that they were written on the board. I can’t remember how many times I’ve done that to my classes and then gotten annoyed with them for not paying attention. I thought it was just laziness. How difficult is it to just LISTEN, for crying out loud?

Answer: erm, extremely. It takes every little bit of concentration in your body to follow what’s being said, process it in your mind, come up with an answer, and put it into a sentence structure that is completely unlike any speech pattern that comes naturally to your brain. Even when the answer’s right there on the board, and it’s something perfectly simple like “I’ve been in Korea for 9 months”*, it still requires concentration to read it when it’s written in a foreign alphabet that still looks like a bunch of weird symbols to you unless you focus. And when you’re focusing on doing that, you’re not really listening to the question – and so it is that you’ll answer “What do you do for a living?” with “I”m 28 years old”**.  Or, in the case of some of my students yesterday, you’ll answer “What colour is it?” with “It’s a circle.”. Having my teacher say, with a patient smile, “No, you didn’t listen to the question…” threw me, because I felt confused and panicked and, well, a bit betrayed, actually!

However, the class was great fun and really practical, because she taught us some things that we really wanted to know – namely, how to answer taxi drivers’ questions using more than one word or a confused shrug. Our taxi driver on the way home was delighted to have three excited, chatty girls telling him all about themselves.

But my favourite part of the evening was when I answered the teacher’s question about my age. “I’m 28 years old” I said haltingly (Korean numbers are, as I believe I have mentioned, a pain in the backside). The teacher looked faintly surprised, and then laughed. “I think you made a mistake,” she said, pointing at the board where the numbers were written down for us. “Did you mean 18?”.

Yessssssssssssssssss.

* Although it’s not actually that simple, as it’s more like “I Korea in 9 months have been.”

** I have, obviously, started refusing to use my Korean age since I “turned 30” at the lunar new year.

The green, green fields of tea.

If you’re a devoted reader or a stalker or something, you’ll remember that I spent a few weeks last year during the Summer of Gloom writing a series of articles about green tea. (Fifty, actually – count ’em!)

While it wasn’t the most exciting job in the world, I did find the subject matter much more interesting than I would have expected to. An awful lot of work goes into making green tea, and I spent ages researching and learning about the history and the process. So, now that I find myself living in Asia, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to go and see it all for myself! That’s how I ended up in the green tea fields of Boseong in the province of Jeollanam-do down in the south-western corner of Korea. This is Korea’s most famous tea-growing region, with fields like this one stretching for miles – a beautiful sight. I even mentioned it in one of those articles last year!

We spent the morning working in the field and in the “tea-making house”, and I got to see my words from last year’s articles come to life as I put them into practice for the first time. We were shown how to pick the leaves and how to choose ones that were the right size and shape. Then we were given baskets and put to work! My mum thinks I look right at home there. ;)

Next, we were taught how to prepare the leaves we’d gathered. We donned our attractive aprons, gloves, and arm protectors, and then – looking decidedly ajummaish – used the traditional, manual, pan-firing process to roast the leaves.

Then, glowing bright red (those things are hot!), we were shown how to cool the leaves as quickly as possible by tossing them around, which was lots of fun…

…and finally, we had to roll and press them to squeeze out as much moisture as possible. This was more difficult than it looked, and our teacher ended up taking mine from me and doing it properly. Oops! My turn to be the slow child who can’t get it right!

This whole process had to be repeated several times, but we only did it twice and then left our leaves to be finished by the real farm workers – or, erm, thrown out – while we went to learn correct etiquette for a traditional Korean tea ceremony. I was somewhat dismayed to learn that I’ve been sitting like a man when in restaurants. I sit cross-legged on the floor, but women are apparently supposed to sit on their knees. Not that I’m about to start doing that, as the leg cramps are bad enough as it is without putting my legs completely to sleep! We were shown how to pour (also different for men and women), how to hold our cups (likewise), and how to sniff the tea before tasting it.

Obviously I do not have the elegance and grace required for such a delicate and ladylike thing as, well, drinking tea. I poured some over South African Friend Two’s skirt (but I was definitely holding the teapot correctly when I did so, thus scalding her in the politest possible manner), and then got scolded for holding my cup in a manly way. In the end, very thirsty, I gave up and just gulped the tea down. Girls can’t all be ladies.

It was another favourite experience from my time in Korea, something I’m thrilled at having had the chance to do. When I sat chain-smoking in The Parents’ conservatory, typing article after article about green tea making processes far away in Asian countries, I had no idea that I would be there doing it for myself less than a year later!

He used the past tense and everything.

Just one of those little moments that reminds me that however stressful my job can feel at times, and however exhausted I am, it’s totally worth it.


Hello~  Hayley teacher!
I go to Mahyook elementary school now.
I met Sarah teacher here.
You don’t know who’s she.  She was old teacher in kindergarten,
when I was 6 years old.
I am happy, I love school.
I’m missing you. I hope to see you soon.
Bye!

– a  letter from Jay, my absolute favourite child from last year, one of the ones I cried over saying goodbye to.

He’s 8 years old now in Korean terms, about 6 or 7 in ours. I still miss him and his sweet no-front-teeth smile and big hugs and affectionate kisses, and this little letter made me both well up and grin from ear to ear.

I can’t really put into words why, but it made my day.

Korea, fighting!

I have never in my life experienced an atmosphere like the one in Korea over these past few weeks.

They are the most fiercely patriotic and proud nation I have ever seen, and while this can sometimes be frustrating, it’s mostly a wonderful thing to witness. And now that World Cup fever has hit, it’s hard not to get swept along with the emotion and excitement of it all.

They’ve gone football crazy. You can feel the excitement pulsing through the country as you weave your way through a sea of red shirts on the streets, in the cities, in the villages, in the supermarkets. Flags are flying, shops have messages of support and encouragement in their windows, speakers on the streets blare out World Cup songs, and everywhere, everywhere, the eternal chant drifts through the air: Dae-han-min-gook!

That’s just the longer, formal name for Korea, and it’s sung like a chant, punctuated by claps. Kids sing it as they play, groups of friends sing it on a night out, it blasts out from the radio and the TV, and you find yourself spontaneously shouting “Dae-han-min-gook!” for no real reason at random points throughout the day, either scaring those around you or (more likely) prompting a cheer and participation.The other familar cry is “한국, 파이팅!” (Hangook, pie-ting), which, in English, is “Korea, fighting!”. I say English, but I mean Konglish – “fighting!” is what people here shout in the way that means “Go, team!” or “Come on!” or “You can do it!”.

All across the country, proud Koreans gather in football stadiums, parks, entertainment venues and bars to watch on the big screens as their beloved “Red Devils” play with the eyes of the world on them. Last week, on the day of the Argentina game, just about everyone in the country seemed to be wearing red as they went about their daily routines. My school held a sleepover for the kids, with games and a BBQ, and screened the game for them in the gym. When I left at 5pm, they were all getting changed into their little red shirts and bringing out their flags and getting their faces painted in team colours. It was adorable, and I would have stayed, only I had plans to meet some (slightly) more mature people at the World Cup stadium.

I don’t think I’ve felt that kind of excited anticipation since I was waiting to get into a Take That concert and heard several thousand voices singing Pray. It’s a unique sort of feeling and atmosphere that only a huge crowd of like-minded enthusiasts can generate. As we paid for our flashing horns and face stickers and searched for the block where our seats were being saved, we heard the roar of the crowd turn into an almighty chant with claps that thundered in our ears. Dae-han-min-gook! Dae-han-min-gook! We actually broke into a run, despite the 30°C and the sweat, so eager were we to be in that crowd. I had goosebumps before I even got to my seat.

The stadium was a sea of red and white. Someone with a microphone on the pitch kept the crowd revved up and excited; fireworks exploded overhead (and were set off every now and again by random people in the crowd – this sort of thing is fine here!); a giant flag was brought in and laid on the pitch, and another unfurled and held by an entire block of spectators in the stands.

And then Korea scored an own goal and it all felt terribly sad. I think we foreigners were as devastated as the Koreans. But only for about half a minute, because that’s how long it took for the agonised expressions to turn to determination, and the singing and chanting to start back up, and the stadium to fill with the sound of cheering once again. It was brilliant, like a massive party with thousands of guests. We sang, we danced, we clapped and cheered until we were hoarse, we did the Mexican wave (and got told off by American friends for calling it this, as apparently it’s racist, but I’m not entirely sure how…), and we went as wild as anyone else when Korea scored just before half time. I have never experienced anything like it. You’d think they’d won the World Cup with that goal. All through half time, the cheering and celebrating continued, as people leapt up and down and hugged each other and sang victory songs. Even though they we lost in the end, it was an incredible night with a wonderful atmosphere.

Unfortunately, thanks to time differences, the next Korea match is at 3.30 tomorrow morning. And I’m so into it now that I’m genuinely considering going out to watch it, despite having to teach all day afterwards. I’m sitting here in my red Korea shirt, having chanted “Dae-han-min-guk!” with my excited kindergarteners (many of whom have Korean flags stenciled on to their faces) more times than I care to remember, and I feel as if it would somehow be wrong to sleep tonight.

Good luck, Red Devils. FIGHTING KOREA!