Almost Famous

There’s a little convenience store across the road from my school, and I go there on the way home from work if I need some small essential like milk or juice or kimchi.

The woman who works there was in awe of me at first, going on and on about my beautiful face and beautiful hair and beautiful eyes until (somewhat to my disappointment) she’d seen me enough times for me to cease being the exotic foreigner and just become a regular customer. I’m still something of a celebrity there, though – perhaps because she’s very excited and proud to show off to other customers that she knows a non-Korean.

I get free stuff almost every time I go in. Sometimes she’ll throw a big pack of sweets into my bag; other times she’ll give me an extra one of whatever I’m buying. But the amusing thing to me is that even the other customers shower gifts and attention on me.

For example, I went in the other week on a very cold day, tired from work and coughing thanks to the sore throat that had been bothering me for days. The shop was, as it often is, packed with people – it’s almost like a little social meeting-point, with a table and chairs squashed into one corner of the tiny space. Teenagers were chatting and buying sweets, and the usual old men were sitting at the table eating gimbap and playing Go-Stop. Nothing unusual about any of this, except that when I opened the door and came in, there was a sudden hush and everyone went “Oh-wah!” in unison. This is the Korean version of “Wow!”. Erm. I didn’t quite know how to react, so I just smiled graciously and bowed slightly in greeting, feeling a bit like royalty. Every eye followed me as I wandered around and picked out my purchases.

When I made it through my crowd of admirers to the till, an old man was waiting patiently with a bottle of honey water, warm from the special heated cupboard they have for drinks in the winter. For your throat, he explained in Korean, it will make your cough go away.

I solemnly accepted the gift, with much bowing and kamsahamnida-ing, and waited as he paid the shop woman, who was looking a little put out. Not to be outdone, she gave me a free packet of throat lozenges. Another old man became visibly anxious as he observed all this kindness, and looked around frantically for something that he could buy for this unexpected celebrity guest. Bizarrely, he chose a packet of roasted seaweed, which he purchased in a very serious, dutiful manner and presented to me as if it were a gold trophy. I accepted with the appropriate OTT gratitude, as if he had in fact given me said gold trophy. When I left, the jingle of the bell at the door was drowned out by a chorus of goodbyes, the entire population of the shop bowing and waving as I backed out feeling a tad overwhelmed.

Sometimes I feel like I should run out of the shop with my hands in front of my face, shrieking “I just want to have a normal life!!”. But honestly, I think I’ll be quite hurt when I go back home and find that I have to leave shops without someone showering me with compliments or buying me a gift…


I suppose I should take advantage of being in a country “on the brink of nuclear war” and write a thought-provoking, serious journalism-y kind of article.

I could tell you about how people are packing up all their possessions and booking flights out of the country. I could tell you about emergency drills being done in schools and public places. I could tell you about the grim, tense faces of the people on the streets. I could tell you about the almost tangible atmosphere of fear and tension, and the eerie silence in once lively towns.

Of course, it would all be utter bollocks.

The media has been doing its best to dramatise the situation and paint a sad picture of frightened South Koreans running around frantically and planning their escape as a cackling Kim Jong-il aims a big cannon in the direction of Seoul and prepares to fire. In truth, life is exactly the same as it was before Tuesday’s incident near the border.

I have been likening it to living in Northern Ireland all your life. Until I reached my twenties, I wasn’t actually aware that the name “Northern Ireland” carried a lot of negative connotations. I genuinely had no idea that, for most of the world, Northern Ireland was a scary, war-torn, dangerous land where battles raged and bombs exploded and people lived in fear and trembling. I knew, of course, that NI had had its Troubles, and still had plenty, but I really wasn’t aware that we were so terrifying to so many people. That people actually pitied us and saw us as “those poor people in that terrible country”, in the pitying, condescending way they talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, was news to me.

Because for me, Northern Ireland was simply my home. I’d never seen a gunman, never been caught in a bomb blast, never known that I was meant to be afraid. I played in the park, I went to school, I studied for exams, I giggled over boys with my friends… regardless of my own personal feelings about Northern Ireland and its politics, I had a perfectly normal, happy, safe childhood, in a perfectly average town, with perfectly ordinary people.

Then, when I was in my early 20s, I got involved with a church and a group of American missionaries in my home town, and learned for the first time how people viewed my country and the lives of those of us who called it our home. One of the couples in the group had brought their young daughter, who was maybe only a year old at the time. One morning, I sat in on a team meeting, and I was utterly baffled when the father of the small child began to justify his reasons for bringing her along to such a dangerous place. He spoke of how much criticism he’d received for this decision, and how he’d been in some amount of inner turmoil about whether to bring her or not. He felt as if people might judge him to be a bad father for bringing his little girl to Northern Ireland. He almost seemed tearful as he spoke of it, and you could tell he felt guilty about his decision.

I didn’t react, mainly because I was totally confused. I couldn’t even fathom why it was such a big deal to bring a toddler to Northern Ireland. Hadn’t I lived there my whole life? Hadn’t my friends and I been children, even babies, at some point? Weren’t there, in fact, people having babies there every day?! It took me quite some time to work out that he genuinely did fear that he was putting the child’s life at risk by bringing her to Northern Ireland, as if he was dragging her through battle trenches or strapping her into a fighter jet.

I don’t really know this guy, but he seemed perfectly nice. His guilt was real, because he really did believe that people risked their lives when they entered Northern Ireland. He saw only the history and the dramatised news stories and the pictures of bomb sites. He didn’t know that people of my generation had grown up not experiencing any of this, and that life was just going on for us as it was for people in his own country. Yes, there was the occasional ‘incident’, but it was just a part of life, and sure didn’t every country have its ‘incidents’?!

And I suppose that’s my point. We see the news stories and the pictures and the heart-stopping headlines, and it contributes to the image we have of a country. I know that I, for one, think immediately of bombs and guns when I hear “Afghanistan” or “Iraq”. For you, the word “Korea” may now bring to mind instant images of smoke billowing from a bombed island. For many people, “Northern Ireland” means car bombs and masked gunmen.

Yet to me, Northern Ireland is a safe place. Why? Because it’s my home. Because it’s familiar. Yes, to me it’s even safer than the USA – a place where people are allowed to own guns, and where everything is so big and overwhelming.

The people in South Korea feel the same way about their country. It’s home. It’s safe. It’s familiar. And just as we Northern Irish could spend our lives waiting in fear for the next IRA bombing, but choose not to, the South Koreans are not panicking about the threat from the north. It’s been there for so long, they’re used to it. You can’t live your life in a state of panic about what may or may not happen. Wherever you look, across the globe, in the countries whose names send shivers of fear running down your spine… in those very countries, there are ordinary people just like you walking down the street, and drinking coffee, and chatting with their friends, and making the dinner.

The IRA could bomb my home town. Kim Jong-il could launch an attack that starts World War III. A crazed gunman could walk into some American high school and shoot everyone in sight.

But for now, we’re OK. So let’s try not to panic.


If you were addressing humankind, and all its groups were listening, what advice would you give?

The best advice I think was given by Douglas Adams: DON’T PANIC.

– Arthur C. Clarke


While we’re on the subject of Korean foods, I must take the opportunity to introduce you to the oddity that is tteok.

The best translation they can come up with for this… this thing, is “rice cake”, which initially made me imagine those crispy, tasteless crackerbreads you eat when you’re on the Weightwatchers diet and have run out of points for bread. That is not what tteok is. Although it is indeed tasteless, it is most definitely not crispy.

Tteok is an impossibly chewy, totally flavourless… thing, made with a glutinous rice flour, into about a million (I’m hazarding a guess) different varieties. You see dozens of stalls loaded with tteok of all shapes and sizes at the market, and tteok gift sets in the shops. Street food carts sell every kid’s favourite snack, tteokbokki, a spicy yet strangely sweet mixture of tteok and sauce. There’s tteok with red bean paste in the centre, and multicoloured tteok with decorative icing, such as the kind I got today as a thank you from a colleague whose wedding I recently attended.

I am obviously a huge fan of Korean food, but I must confess that I really do not like tteok. This may seem like an odd thing to say about a food, but, well… I really don’t understand the point of it. It has no taste. It is neither delicious nor disgusting. It has a weird texture. I have likened it to the experience of chewing a piece of gum until there’s only a dull, stale taste left, and then having to swallow it rather than spit it out. I can vaguely understand the appeal of the small, round tteok balls with sweet fillings inside, although they’re still not to my taste at all and I find that I’m left desperately chewing the tteok long after the sweet flavour has gone. Plus I don’t like the element of surprise that comes with biting into them and the as yet unknown filling being released whether you like it or not. Oh, the number of these I have forced myself to eat simply because they’re offered by my host or superior, and it’s extremely rude to refuse!

Still, like I said, I can kind of understand those ones. I was completely perlexed, on the other hand, by a gift I received on Pepero Day this year. Spot the cling-filmed  package of two long, white sticks looking out of place amongst all the lovely chocolate things on my desk:

I looked this up on Wikipedia and discovered an addition to the Pepero page. Apparently parents and teachers are unenthusiastic about this (Korean equivalent of) Hallmark holiday, particularly since it involves stuffing your face with unhealthy snacks all day. Seriously, I felt sick by the end of Pepero Day the other week. Anyway, an alternative, healthy “Garaetteok Day” has been proposed as a replacement, where sticks of tteok are exchanged instead of sticks of chocolate.


I was quite intrigued by the garaetteok packet, in the naïve way I have when it comes to tteok, as if I keep expecting the next one I try to have morphed into some deliciously tasty treat. I unpeeled the wrapping and took an expectant bite. It was like eating chewed gum that had been wrapped in cling fim and presented to me as a gift. I was a little miffed, actually, and obviously gave the offending child extra homework as punishment for insulting me so.

Tteok is an ingredient in one of my favourite Korean meals, Dak Galbi, where it somehow works quite well with the flavours and textures. It is also ingredient in that New Year soup that makes you get older. I can cope with it as an ingredient. But as a snack on its own, I can’t help but feel let down and downright baffled by it. How can a country where “all the food tastes bright red” (as South African Friend Four delightfully describes the fiery heat of most Korean foods) enjoy snacking on tasteless, chewy, plasticine?

Kimchi Day

I got told, at the last minute as usual, that my class before lunch on Friday would finish early. Actually, I got told while I was in the middle of teaching the class, but anyway. I’m used to such happenings by now.

The reason for this was so that lunch could be taken earlier, and the kitchen freed up for  a very important event – making the kimchi supply for the next I-don’t-know-how-long. Several ajummas were imported into the school for this critical operation, and I hovered in delight around the kitchen door, peeping in occasionally to watch the proceedings. There were about 200 cabbages sitting around in baskets, surrounding a HUGE basin of the all-important sauce.

Kimchi-making is something that is done in homes all over Korea, with the skills and recipes passed down from the women of one generation to the next in each family. First, the sauce is prepared according to the family’s own ‘secret’ recipe. It basically involves large quantities of Korea’s flaming hot spicy red pepper paste, gochujang (a big favourite of mine – I rarely cook without it), along with various spices and chopped vegetables.

Next, the sauce is applied to the leaves. This is a long process when you’re dealing with hundreds of cabbages. The sauce must be layered on in between all of the leaves, one at a time.

Next, the kimchi is carefully and tightly packed into traditional kimchi pots like these for fermentation:

Yes, those are fish drying on the line, by the way.

You see these pots in practically every garden or apartment balcony in Korea. The pots are often buried underneath the ground and left for the kimchi to ferment. Nowadays, however, the kimchi is often packed into plastic containers and stored in – I kid you not – a Kimchi Fridge. The Kimchi Fridge is apparently the most wanted household item on every Korean housewife’s list. I do not doubt this statistic in the slightest.

Modern kimchi containers.

Kimchi can be eaten fresh, but the general theory is that the longer it’s been fermenting, the better it tastes (until a certain point, I presume, as it’s bound to become inedible sludge at some point). However, we got a special preview of the new kimchi batch on Friday, and it was the most amazing thing I have ever eaten. Truly. I may have the kimchi madness or something, because when I think about it rationally I know that there’s really no way it could actually have been nicer than slow-cooked lamb, or tender steaks with cream sauce, or similar delicacies, but I have gone past sense and reason where kimchi is concerned.

I eventually got shooed out of the kitchen by an unknown ajumma, who got quite agitated when the cooking lady let me try my hand at kimchi-making. I think the idea of a foreigner making kimchi was too much for her – although I felt better about my eviction when the school director received a stern telling-off a few minutes later, and had the cabbage she was working on taken off her. No one, it seems, can be trusted to make kimchi quite like the ajummas!


When I say that I greatly prefer written communication to any other form (often including seeing people face-to-face!), it’s not just something that I’ve recently decided and declared. My love of forming relationships through writing has been present for as long as I can remember. I remember the first time I heard about the concept of penpals. Back in the days before every home and every child had mobile phones and computers and internet access, the idea of befriending someone from another country was incredibly exciting to me. The rest of the world beyond my own little town was a mysterious, unknown place, and it fascinated me because I knew so little about it.

I got my first penpal through a school scheme – a French girl whose name I don’t recall. We exchanged several letters in a mixture of my shaky beginner French and English that she could barely understand. It wasn’t a great success, to be honest, since we were both at the age where we wanted to be able to ask and say more, but were prevented from doing so by our language barrier. Our communication gradually fizzled out.

However, it had sparked a desire in me to write to more friends. I had experienced the thrill of receiving a postmarked envelope containing a handwritten letter from a stranger who wanted to tell me about her life, and the joy of sitting down with a fresh sheet of paper to reply.

Then I discovered the ‘penpals wanted’ section of my pre-teen magazine of choice, Fast Forward. Again, this was back in another world where it was perfectly OK for children to have their names and addresses printed in national publications, requesting strangers to contact them! I wrote to a girl named Marjorie in the USA – I don’t know how she’d managed to get into a British magazine, but there she was anyway. I remember her being fascinated by me and asking if we had TV and running water in Ireland. I didn’t get annoyed though, because she also kept sending me lots of gifts that were very foreign and exciting to me: Lifesavers sweets (“candies”, she called them, just like Americans on TV!!), pictures of her basketball heroes, even some items of clothing. We didn’t have a lot in common, so that friendship didn’t really go anywhere either, but by now I was hooked. I put an advert of my own in Fast Forward, and it was published just before we went on a family holiday. To my utter delight, I came back to about 40 letters from all over the UK, and a few farther afield. That summer, I had a constant supply of letters arriving every single day, and I loved it.

I gradually ended up with just a handful of regular penpals, the ones with whom I had things in common and had become good friends. One of them, an English girl, was almost identical to me in terms of interests and personality, and we would spend hours writing to each other – pages and pages and pages, every week. I went to stay with her when I was sixteen, and she with me a few months later. We made silly movies for each other with all our friends, and talked on the phone on special occasions. She was one of my best friends throughout my late teens, despite living in another country, and although we’ve lost touch in the decade that’s passed since then, and I can’t find her online, I fully intend to write to her at her parents’ old address to fulfil number 101 of my 101 Things list! (So regularly and often did we write, the address still trips easily off my tongue to this day.)

I don’t get many letters nowadays, since email and Facebook and Skype have changed our world. I’m a fan of all three of these things (in fact, of the three times in my life I’d say I’ve been ‘in love’, two of them were with online acquaintances who wrote me lengthy emails and became modern-day penpals before they were anything more! I know, I know… how very You’ve Got Mail), but it makes me a little sad that the joy of letter-writing is fading from our world. The feeling of anticipation as you see the envelope with elegant or messy handwriting addressed to you, the excitement of opening it, the pleasure of reading the letter, the enjoyment of writing back… not many people experience it, these days.

So, I decided to keep it alive by setting up some of my grade one students with penpals from my old school in Northern Ireland. With a little help from my mum, I made contact with a very nice teacher and got a list of names of children who wanted Korean penpals. Yesterday, my class of 7-year-olds bounded in very excitedly after school for their English class, asking if today was the day when they’d be sending their letters. For the first time, they’re getting to use English for a reason other than, well, “to learn English”. They’re communicating with someone far away, and they’re so excited about it – they spent the class carefully writing their introductions, asking their questions, and gluing their photos to the page. It was very cute!

Things on the board: penpals' names, list of suggested things to mention in letters, and list of their own real names written in our alphabet for them. :)

It brought back very good memories from my own childhood, and I recaptured my excitement and enthusiasm through theirs. I can hardly wait till they get their replies, and I get to watch them opening and reading the letters their new friends have written them!

We’ve got the whole world in our hands.

This week, we were given the task of teaching the children about the solar system. It was good fun, as children seem to be fascinated by space and planets and suchlike, so they were all listening and contributing to the lesson, and quite eager to learn what the planets are called in English.

So anyway, I’m teaching my first class – some 5-year-olds – and they’re surprising me with their ability to tell me things like the reason Mercury is very hot is because it’s close to the sun. I wouldn’t have a hope of being able to communicate that in Korean. They carefully repeat the names of Mercury and Venus until they can pronounce them properly. Then I flash the picture of the next planet up on the screen, with a big smile to let them know that they will be able to get the name of this one without me telling them.

And who knows what THIS planet is called?!

KOREA!!!!! the entire class yells in almost hysterically excited unison.

I am somewhat thrown by this, but manage to keep the positive, encouraging expression on my face as I say Yes, that’s right, Korea is on this planet! What is the planet called?

KOREA!!!!!! KOREA!!!! KOREA!!!!!

I am half expecting them to break into a chorus of Dae-han-min-guk, with claps, and hastily try to put an end to the madness. Erm, no… not Korea…

One bright little boy is watching my expression, and thinks he gets what I want them to say. He raises his hand. Yes, Charlie, I say in relief.

It is called Korea, says he, clearly thinking that answers in full sentences are what I’m after.

No, no, no! I say helplessly as everyone catches on and starts chanting “It is called Korea” as they point at a picture of our planet. This is all going horribly wrong. It is not called Korea! It is called Earth! Earth! E-A-R-T-H!

The kids are starting to look genuinely confused and somewhat agitated now. Some are mulling over this new information, trying to take it in. Others are arguing quite fiercely with me for daring to suggest that Korea is not the whole world and the whole world is not Korea. I try pointing at the two visible continents (which we learned just a few weeks ago) on the picture of the Earth, demonstrating that there are in fact countries other than Korea on the planet, and this seems to upset them a little. Maybe I am single-handedly destroying their entire world view, I don’t know.

I decide to ease the tension by moving on, and we go through the rest of the planets. I kind of miss Pluto, incidentally. Then they colour their pictures of the solar system, and I finish with a final review of the names and order. I point at the pictures, and the kids say the name of each planet.

Mercury! they chorus.

Venus! they chorus.

KOREA!!! they scream in delight. I choose to ignore them, completely bewildered by this point. Yes, EARTH, I reply, nodding, as if that’s what they just said. I point at the next one.

Mars! they chorus.

Teacher! Teacher, no! One little girl refuses to accept what I just did, and is looking anxious almost to the point of tears. Earth NO! Is Korea, KOREA!! I know I should just let it go, but I can’t.


Blank silence.

Look, I say, once again in the ridiculous position of trying to reason with 5-year-olds whose language I can’t speak, I am not from Korea, am I? Teacher? Korea? No. They agree readily enough. OK, so, if this (despairing gesture at picture of the planet Earth) is Korea… then where do you think teacher is from?

They look stumped. I can hear some serious whispering and intense conferring going on. Charlie is nominated to speak on behalf of the class, and I look expectantly at him. Neptune? he guesses hopefully. Well, that’s just great.

I mean, seriously, what are these children being taught?! Do they genuinely think Korea is an entire planet?! I’ve heard my friends tell stories of how upset and angry their students got when they had Korea pointed out to them on a map – they flat-out refused to accept that their country, the centre of the world, could be so small. And while national pride can be a positive thing, I must say it’s taking it a bit far to teach children that the rest of the world is either insignificant or non-existent.

Scarily like their northern neighbours, in fact…