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Korean Sojourns


She’s not my student—she’s my friend—and she attends one of the better middle schools in Beautiful Gyeongju. During our last conversation she revealed that one of her teachers punishes her students by, first, holding her fingers almost like a long-nailed vampire or ghoul, and, second, by raking them against the asscheeks of her disobedient pupils. She whacked one such student several times with a meterstick or a pointer or something, and he was so badly hurt he had to go to the hospital, telling my friend that his behind was covered with black and blue welts.

They’re usually punished, physically, for not doing their homework.

How Far the Apple Has Fallen from the Tree

The Story Of Gertrude Berg's Great Grandson...

The Story Of Gertrude Berg’s Great Grandson…

...Living In Korea

…Living In Korea

Fight The Power

Why have I stopped blogging? Because blogging doesn’t pay. Writing books doesn’t really pay either, but it does pay something, and I decided over the last two months to devote all my creative powers toward using writing to make that something into a bigger and more substantial something that would be sufficient to extricate both myself and my family from Korea. Not surprisingly, we’re all still here.

Rules For The Korean Road

1. Pedal to the metal at all times. Even before you start the engine. Even when you are outside of the car, you should leave a brick on the gas pedal, because speed makes men stronger.
2. If you drive an expensive-looking black car, it’s okay to run over children and old ladies. In fact, the police will fine you if you don’t.
3. Honk like you’re getting paid for it. Install fake police sirens to help convince other ( = lesser) people that you are in charge and know how to deal with every situation far better than they do.
4. Since signaling causes you to lose face by revealing your intentions to your enemies, don’t signal, unless it’s a fake-out.
5. Fill up your tank with paint thinner and then bribe the mechanic to write a fraudulent insurance form once the car inevitably breaks down to win.

George Orwell Sounds A Lot Like A North Korean (In Korean)

그러면 우리는 무엇을 해야 되겠읍니까? 그것은 밤낮 없이 몸과 마음을 다하여 인류의 타도에 힘쓰는 것입니다!


Guh-lu-myon oo-lee-nun moo-oh-sul hay-ya day-ges-soom-nee-ka? Guh-gos-oon bam-nat opshee mome-gwa ma-oom-ul da-ha-yaw il-yoo-ai ta-do-ai heem-suh-nun goshe-im-nee-da!

My literal translation:

So we-the what-the do should? Thing-the nightdayless body-and mind-the all-for humanity-of overthrow-at strength-using thing is!

George Orwell:

What then must we do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race!

When The Storm Lay Gyeongju Low

My son and I were wandering the Bronze Age petroglyphs on the far side of the Hyeongsan River and the feeling in the air was already bizarre, as he had just pointed at one of the sheer cliffs and exclaimed “Buddha!”, despite having no apparent knowledge that the area was some kind of sacred fertility precinct thousands of years ago (in Korean it’s called “애기 청소 / Aegee Chungso / Baby-Washing”). The carvings on the rocks are visible if you look closely—I only discovered them after taking a picture, draining the colors, and then fiddling with the contrast—but I find it somewhat eerie that the boy found his own arcane way of sensing their spiritual significance.

How To Fight The Hellos

It’s always confused me, this occasional predilection Asia has for greeting non-Asians with an English hello—I was once helloed as faraway as the Balinese countryside, while riding on the back of a speeding motorbike, by a uniformed schoolchild—and though I can’t speak for the tone used in China, Japan, or other countries, my impression is that in Korea the speaker is generally attempting to alienate you from his culture, to establish that you are a member of a different tribe, to amuse his friends, or to sate a Pavlovian reflex implanted within his consciousness by his television or his elders: when you see a person who looks slightly different, you must say hello in English.

I Was On National TV In Korea For Ten Minutes…

…and, as a result, I’ve shamed all of my ancestors, from Adam on down. You should be able to watch the video here. The segment with my family starts at about 44:00.

Nice New Review Of Teakettle Mountain


Teakettle Mountain is a wonderful and humorous portrayal of life in South Korea. The detail is amazing – of the people, the place and the culture, as well as the pace and structure of life – absolutely fascinating. I feel like I’ve boarded a plane and physically visited the country.

Ian James’ grip and use of language is a joy to read. I didn’t curl up with the book, Teakettle Mountain curled up with me, and didn’t let me out of its embrace until I had read the last word. It is so full of wonderfully original descriptions it was difficult to find a favourite, and after much deliberation I’ve chosen: ‘Ms Yoon, who spoke American English as though she were a textbook that had been electrified and, Frankenstein-like, bought to life.’

Where Have All The Korean Ruins Gone?

There isn’t a whole hell of a lot left of the Shilla Dynasty. Aside from two spectacular sets of ruins in Gyeongju—Seokguram and Bulguksa, of course—and a few decent sculptures in the local museum, nearly everything this thousand-year old culture created has been completely destroyed. Part of me suspected that this was due to a lack of artistic fervor, but absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence: it’s also possible that the last millennium of Korean history was turbulent enough to nearly erase the Shilla from existence.

I Think I’m Turning Ko-re-an

“My very chains and I grew friends…”
—Byron, The Prisoner of Chillon

Understanding Psy (싸이 이해하기) / Psy-Ology

Gangnam Style is about the silliness of South Korea’s nouveau riche; Gentleman is (more or less) about the silliness of assholes.

This is the best of KPOP: incredibly simple, incredibly fast, incredibly repetitive, incredibly catchy. All South Korea will be playing this song from every storefront and every television and every smartphone around the clock for the next six months, long after the rest of the world has lost interest; nonetheless, Psy is no one-hit wonder.

La Fusillade

…I have also quit reading Expat Hell. I’m afraid to talk about it because the writer is rather savage to almost everyone, most notably his detractors. Still. Sticks and stones. I just always felt horrible about myself whenever I read his writing, entertaining as it was. As though living in Korea was something to be ashamed of. As though there is nothing more to this place than stupid expatriates, plastic surgery addicts, prostitutes, and ajummas. Well, obviously, if it is so shameful, and if you are so rich and successful, why don’t you go back to America, or live in Thailand, or somewhere more to your liking? I am no Korea apologist, but there is far more to this country than the vomit on the sidewalk.

When To Panic About North Korea

It really is all bluster. Both Choe Sang-hoon of the New York Times and Ask A Korean have reached the same conclusion: so long as the Kaesong Industrial Plant stays open, war would appear to be unlikely.


It’s come to the point where I can predict the answers to most of the questions I ask in my conversation classes. “What’s your favorite kind of music?” “Balla-duh.” “Who’s your favorite actor?” “Won Bin.” “Why do you like him?” “He is so sexy.” “What do you like doing?” “I like sleeping.” “What are your plans for this weekend?” “I’m going to a cafe to talk with my friends.” “What’s your favorite kind of coffee?” “I like Americano.” “Why?” “It is very delicious.” And on and on.

That Is Mannerless Speaking

While standing in line at the new Starbucks in town—why did I even go there? the green tea latte was $6!—and listening to Hanggai in my earbuds, I heard a woman behind me shouting, in Korean, “It’s a foreigner! It’s a foreigner!” I turned around and looked at this woman, who was shouting for the benefit of her toddler, then standing far beneath us. Rolling my eyes, I turned back to the front of the line, but the shouts of “It’s a foreigner!” continued unabated, and I thought, yes, this is it, finally, the moment I strike back, after almost four years of listening to people talk about me as if I can’t understand them, the end is here, this is the turn of the tide.

The earbuds come out.

Korea: Not Finnished Yet

Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. “Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in Finland.”

The Coffee Alchemist At Schumann Gwa Clara

For Whom The Whom Whoms (One Way Learning Korean Improved My English)

This word, whom, it isn’t the easiest word to throw around, and I’m willing to bet about 99% of English speakers would prefer to just say who rather than risk looking like a dumbass. Even the dictionary thinks you should lay off before attempting to tackle this beast: “Although there are some speakers who still use who and whom according to the rules of formal grammar as stated here, there are many more who rarely use whom at all; its use has retreated steadily and is now largely restricted to formal contexts.” One of my best teachers in high school told me that you can tell if whom is the right word to use if you can replace it with him—to whom are you speaking? to him are you speaking? are you speaking to him?—because both whom and him “forms the objective case”; in other words, he is the subject, him is the object, as in, he is screwing himself. The subject screws the object.

President Park

Yesterday in class I suggested that my students say “What do you think of…” instead of “Howabout…?”, since the latter is a pseudo-Konglish-y phrase thrown around all the time by even the most advanced learners as a segue from one topic into another—”Howabout Ameleekano?” was the inspirational disaster hurled my way in a fascinating discussion of coffee preferences (“Why do you like it?” “It is very delicious.”)—and as a more interesting example and possible kindler of more fruitful conversations I said the students could ask each other what they thought of Park Geun-hye, the new president of South Korea and the daughter of the dictator and (more-or-less) founder of the country, Mr. Controversy, Park Chung-hee. There was at once a collective gasp from the entire classroom. Eighteen students gaped their mouths and eyes: I had committed some sort of faux pas.

A History Of Monday

What To Do If The Second Korean War Starts?

The Unknown Gyeongju

Cherry blossoms? Who gives a damn? I’ve been to Seokguram. I’ve seen Bulguksa a thousand times. I’m going to have a seizure if I even glance at the tumuli again. The idea of wandering inside the Heavenly Horse Tomb fills my heart with bile. To hell with Gyeongju! I’ve seen everything worth seeing! I’m going to Japan!

There are already green buds on the trees here, and warmth is flowing through the air: the cherry blossoms are coming, and when they arrive in the first few weekends of April the city is going to be so mobbed with Korean tourists you won’t be able to stick out an arm without knocking off someone’s poker visor. On top of that, you’ve probably already come here a few times by now, and you undoubtedly think you’ve extracted every last drop of fun from the palpitating fruit that is the city of Gyeongju, but you couldn’t be more wrong. As one of my friends said, in Gyeongju, there’s so much to Gyeong-do!

The College Students

Yeah man, they really are as great as you think. There’s no more screaming, no more dong-chimming, and very little in the way of running around and hitting. I’ve taught five classes so far this week at my Korean university, and each was actually a pleasant relief from the rest of the things going on in my life. If you can believe it, when I left those classrooms I felt better than when I first stepped inside.


I maintain my sanity in the playplace, which is mobbed with children and parents—at least a hundred swarming an area the size of a large living room, my son among them—by attempting to convince various Korean children that I am Korean. I once read that this was possible online, and so now whenever a Korean child asks me if I’m a Korean, or where I’m from (“Which country person are you?”), I respond by telling them that I’m a Korean. Few of them ever seem to believe me—they usually laugh, freak out, and run away—but about a year ago one notable child attempted to quiz me on my knowledge of the Korean language (if one speaks Korean well, one is almost certainly a Korean) by asking what me what a mouse was. “Cheega moya?” “What is the mouse?” He asked, and at the time I didn’t know, so I looked to my wife, who was standing nearby, and she shouted, in English: “Animal! Animal! Say it’s an animal!” But I’d forgotten the Korean word for animal (dongmool), and I failed the test.


Yesterday my wife and I embarked on a foolhardy journey from Gyeongju to Pohang, driving there in our new car to get me a driver’s license from the nearest Examination Office. This trip was remarkable for numerous reasons. The first was the distance: these two cities are so close that as soon as you leave one you enter the other, and even with my wife’s studiously cautious driving we managed to get there in under half an hour. I had assumed for no good reason that the distance was greater, and that the country itself was bigger, but by having a car the distances between places shrink down considerably, to the extent that if there were a bridge built from Busan to Japan—one can only dream!—the drive would probably not exceed a couple of hours.

Photos From The Day’s Adventures

A sticker my wife chose to fix to the rear windshield of our new car which says, in loosely-translated English:

A sticker my wife chose to fix to the rear windshield of our new car which says, in loosely-translated English: “I’m a stupid woman driver.” Literally it says: “Kim Yeo-sa is taking”, Kim Yeo-sa being a generic name for a woman who cannot drive.

Stay Or Go

This eternal question is not as simple as it seems: should I remain in Korea, or should I go somewhere else? “Seek not in the wide world to find a home,” writes Murasaki Shikibu, “but where you chance to rest, call that your house.”

Dispatches From A Bleak Kingdom

The Power of Language

The young man, the youth, the boy, whatever you want to call him, was making odd sounds behind me as I waited in the parking lot with my son, who was napping like an angel in his stroller, but I, incorrigible gentleman that I am, decided not to stare. Then, all of a sudden, someone was examining my sock. It was the youth. “Don’t touch!” I shouted in English, but he continued to bend over my shoe and peep at my undergarments, and so I shouted at him again—to no effect.

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