Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Teaching English in Korea (page 2 of 3)

Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine – “I want to conversation”

If there were any occupational hazards to being an English teacher overseas, one of them would most likely be when you are “accosted” by someone wanting to practice their English.

I am not talking about someone who strikes up a friendly conversation with you to try out what English they have learned. Instead, I am talking about someone who just hasn’t learned the fine art of interpersonal—like the Korean man who approached me at the gym the other day to “speak Englishee” with me.

I had just finished jogging/power walking six kilometers on the treadmill when this Korean man approached me at the water cooler as quenched my thirst.

“Can I talk to you?” he asked with a noticeable accent that quickly alerted me that he had rudimentary language skills at best.

For a moment I thought I had done something wrong. You know, maybe I had cut in front of him or something.

“Excuse me?”

“I want to talk to you.”

Like an English-raptor, he had his claws in me now.

“I’m sorry,” I said politely. “I am working out now. I am busy.”

He continued to stand there watching me take another drink of water from the cooler. Obviously, he had not understood what I had just said and was not about to take no for an answer.

“I want to conversation.”

“I’m really sorry,” I said again. “I’m busy.”

Okay, so give the guy credit for being brave enough for trying out what English he had mastered even though it was quite low. I am always harping to students that they should practice their English as much as they can outside of class. However, not everyone knows how to just strike up a friendly conversation with a native speaker. Most of the time, it’s someone like this guy at the gym who thinks that the way to begin a conversation is to say, “I want to conversation with you.”

I ran into him at the gym yesterday and this time, when he saw me he said, “Nice to meet you.”

Okay, that was better than I want to talk to you.

“Hello,” I said.

“Are you tattoo mania?” he asked looking at my ink.

“Yes, I like tattoos.”

“Hmm. I shocked when I see you,” he said. “Now, okay.”

“Thank you.”

“What do you think of Japanese Culture?” he asked, throwing some more English at me.

That’s a double-edged question. He could have been referring to my tattoos, especially the traditional Japanese-style ones, and was genuinely interested in them, or he could have been curious about what I “thought” about Japan, given many Koreans antipathy for Japan. There are some who do not hide their disdain for the Japanese and often want to find out what foreigners think. I wasn’t about to find out what he really wanted to know and excused myself.

“I’m sorry, I want to work out now,” I said. “Nice talking to you.”

There was no more conversation and I could enjoy a very vigorous two-hour work out.

English teachers under quarantine in South Korea

The news coming out of South Korea the past couple of days has been quite crazy and intense: first it was former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun committing suicide by throwing himself off a cliff near Pusan, then it was Norks (North Korea) with Nukes with their nuke test on Monday and then today, it was the Norks again, this time firing some more missiles.

All Nork intensity and seriousness aside, there is one story, equally intense and bizarre that might not be getting much attention back in the States and Canada (and to a degree here in Korea, at least in the English-language dailies) and that is the one about a group of English teachers under quarantine for Influenza A:

South Korea’s health authorities said Monday they have confirmed an additional case of influenza A, bringing the total number of people infected with the new flu virus to 22, according to Yonhap News Agency.

The most recently infected is a 24-year-old U.S. citizen who was teaching English at a private language institute that reported 14 other people who tested positive for the virus sweeping across the globe, the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs said.

“He, like the other foreign teachers, taught English at a local institute,” a ministry official said. “Because the male teacher had shared the same house with a co-worker who had already been diagnosed as having contracted the flu, he has been isolated since Saturday as a precautionary measure.”

All 14 people diagnosed as having been infected by the virus are under quarantine for treatment and observation.

There are currently 18 people in isolation in South Korea.

Health authorities, meanwhile, said that because the foreign teachers infected interacted with locals after classes, there is a chance that the virus may have spread to others.

Well, for the truth about this quarantine, one of the teachers is keeping a blog of it. It is some interesting reading and as of today, it looks like things are getting better for them. Check it out and see how they are doing.

Knock Yourself Out

Sometimes you never know what you might have to explain in an English conversation class when it comes to explaining some new vocabulary or expression.

What we might take for granted, in terms of the meaning of the usage of a particular term in English as a native speaker, can wreak havoc in an English classroom for students just trying to speak the language the best that they can. Sometimes it can be a little interesting when you have to explain a particular word or expression—one that we use all the time, but just never really gave much thought to how you would teach it, or the ways that it could be used.

Today the word was knock. You know, knock on the door? I hear you knocking, Dave Edmunds and knock three times on the ceiling Dawn and knock, knock, who’s there? That knock. Well, the students all had the knack for that knock, comprehension-wise, but what got them was this sentence in a story they were reading: “Agatha knocked the drink out of Robert’s hands.”

“Did she hit him?” a student asked.

“No, she knocked the drink out of his hands,” I explained, “you know she hit his hand and the drink fell.”

“So, she knocked him out.”

“She bumped his hand,” I explained and then demonstrated to the class how a person might “knock” something out of another person’s hands.

I could understand the confusion with this word, especially when one would think about other words that used “knock” in them.  In another class I had taught my students knockoff as well as knock it off but they didn’t press me in explaining these expressions in any more detail.

After class, I was a little curious about knock and thought I would do a little online research at the Online Etymology Dictionary:

O.E. cnocian (W.Saxon cnucian), likely of imitative origin. Meaning, “deprecate, put down” is from 1892. Knockoff “cheap imitation” is from 1966. Knock out “to stun by a blow for a 10-count” in boxing is short for to knock out of time; slang knockout “attractive person” is from 1892. To knock oneself out “make a great effort” is from 1936. Knock-kneed first attested 1774. Command knock it off “stop it” is first recorded 1902. Knocker “door banger” is from 1598; knockers “a woman’s breasts” is from 1941. Knock up is 1663 in sense of “arouse by knocking at the door;” however it is little used in this sense in American English, where the phrase means “get a woman pregnant” (1813), possibly ult. from knock “to copulate with” (1598; cf. slang knocking-shop “brothel,” 1860).

It is really interesting where and when words have come into the English language. I was particularly amused by word “knocker” which reminded me of a scene from Young Frankenstein. In the scene, Dr. Fronkensteen (Gene Wilder), Igor (Marty Feldman), and Inga (Teri Garr) have just arrived at Castle Frankenstein where Igor bangs on the door with these huge “knockers” just as Dr. Fronkensteen is lifting Inga, whose ample bosom is quite noticeable, out of a wagon.

“What knockers,” says Dr. Fronkensteen as he looks at the door.

“Oh, thank you doctor,” Inga replies.


I’ve been in Korea for a very long, long time

That’s how I sometimes feel when someone asks me how long that I have been here; however, the other day was when it really hit me. Didn’t hit me hard or anything. Just kind of made me stop and think about how long I really have been here.

I was walking across the Woosong University campus here in Daejeon this past Monday when I noticed two new English instructors looking a bit lost trying to find the building where there classes must have been located. They were asking one of the security guards for directions, and by the looks of it, were not having too much luck.

I came to their assistance and, as it turned out, they were standing right in front of the building. They thanked me, but one instructor was not finished.

“I don’t know if you remember me, but I met you back in 1992,” said the instructor.

“Excuse me?” I asked. “You met me back in 1992?

That’s going back a couple of years.

“Yeah, I came to ELS the month you left,” he continued. “I moved into your old apartment in Chamsil.”

Yes, that was going back a couple of years.

“Wow, that’s pretty heavy,” I said. “After all these years of teaching in Korea I and now here in Daejeon and Woosong no less, I meet up with someone from my teaching days at ELS.”

“Yeah, that’s wild,” he said.

1992. That was another lifetime for me. I had just finished my second year teaching at ELS, which is now called YBM Sisa, a very large publishing company and hogwon (Korean for institute; in this case a language institute) operation in Korea. I was going back to the States for six weeks to sort out a new E-2 teaching visa and the following January, I would start teaching at Yonsei FLI, the Foreign Language Institute at Yonsei University in western Seoul.

He rattled off a couple of names of people we both used to teach with; people I haven’t thought about in years, but still remembered. After all these years of being in Korea my path once again crossed with someone I knew from that period. (It’s crossed a few times before, when I was a Yonsei, but it’s been many years since I have bumped into someone that I taught with or knew from 1990-1992 when I was teaching at ELS.)

Weird. Very weird.

And it would get a little weirder. When I went to teach my first class on Wednesday, I had the students do this pairwork activity to ask questions to fill out some general information about themselves: age, address, hobbies, and so on. Turns out all the students were born in 1990-the year I came to Korea.

If this happened back in the States maybe it wouldn’t have hit me as much as it did here. I wouldn’t go as far to say that it was some kind of reality check either. It’s just one of those things that stops you in your tracks and makes you go, “wow.”

Yeah, this was one of those weeks when I felt that I have been in Korea for a very long, long time.

Good to Go

Today I went to the Daejeon Immigration office, dropped off some paperwork-including the paperwork for a criminal background check and health check-paid my 60,000 Won and ten minutes later, I was good to go for another year in Korea.

It was down to the wire, too. My visa expired last Saturday and I still hadn’t gotten all the paperwork sorted out that I needed to for extending my sojourn in Korea. Fortunately, the folks at immigration gave me a few days extension, otherwise I would have had to leave Korea last Saturday-the worst-case scenario-and then re-apply for a visa at the Korean embassy in Fukuoka, Japan.

In the past, all that a teacher needed to do to extend one’s sojourn here was to submit a contract, copies of their transcripts and diplomas (yes, somewhere in a folder in Seoul are 14 years of the same transcripts and diplomas; a few years ago the need for those same documents to extend a visa was dropped) contract agreement, and pay a fee. However, the immigration laws in Korea pertaining to teachers changed back in 2007 after a number of foreigners were busted for drug offenses and a pedophile, arrested in Thailand had at one time taught at a school in Korea. As such given the increasing numbers of English-speaking foreigners coming to Korea to teach, the Korean government pushed for these immigration laws to change.

Now all teachers needed to submit a criminal background check. For those of us who have been in Korea forever, it seemed a little strange to have to have a criminal background check done with the FBI. At first, it was thought that we (Americans) would have to go back to the States to have it done. Fortunately, all one needed to do was download a fingerprint form from the FBI, go to a local police station in Korea, get fingerprinted, and then send the fingerprint sheet and 18.00 to the FBI.

A few weeks later, the form would come back if you had no criminal record (and indicated with a stamp that you had no record) and then it was off to the US Embassy in Seoul to sign an affidavit stating that the information on the form was true, pay 30.00 and then have it notarized. So last Friday I got up early to take the 8:23 KTX high-speed train to Seoul. Got to the embassy around 10:00 and I had my notarized affidavit 30 minutes later. Then it was back to Daejeon on the 11:20 KTX, arriving around 12:30.

In addition to having this criminal background check done to get an E-2 teaching Visa, teachers now have to undergo a health check up to check for HIV and drugs, specifically marijuana. There were a couple of English teachers who got busted for drugs, so the government also decided in addition to a criminal background check, it was probably a good idea to check for drugs and HIV. I had to pay 60,000 Won to have my eyes and hearing checked, blood pressure taken, get a chest x-ray and then a blood and urine test.

Yesterday I got all my paperwork together and then today it was off to the immigration office to extend my sojourn in Korea for another year.

I know that before Jeremy Aaron was born in September and before my mom passed away in October I was seriously thinking about coming back to the States to look for  a better job so On and the boys could join me later. However, when the economy back home started to fall apart and people started to get laid off left and right, I didn’t think it was such a good idea. And then mom passed away and even if I did come home, I now had no place to stay until I found a job.

At the same time, I just couldn’t put my family in jeopardy-even though it hurts a lot being separated from them-by leaving Korea and hoping to find something better. I am grateful for what I have and just have to make most of what I have for now even if it means not seeing On, Jeremy Aaron and Bia for another five or six months. There’s going to be a lot of long and lonely days and nights ahead and you know that I am going to be counting down every one of them until I am with my family again.

Yeah, good to go.

Don’t get your panties in a twist

130164741After flying halfway around the world to South Korea, one of my first priorities was shopping.

Not knowing when my luggage would arrive, and wearing the same underwear for three days, I had no choice but to spend my first Sunday in Korea shopping for clothes. I had packed a pair of jeans and a sweater in my carry-on, but not something that I wanted to wear on my first day on the job.

Surprisingly, finding shoes, socks, pants and a few white dress shirts was not a problem. However, when it came to buying underwear that was an entirely different and embarrassing story.

I figured all I had to was find the men’s section in a department store, locate the underwear (hoping that there would be some familiar brand name) buy a few pairs and be on my merry way, or so I thought. So, with this in mind, I headed over to the Lotte Super Store, which was part of the sprawling Lotte Shopping and entertainment complex not too far from where I lived.

My spirits were dashed when I couldn’t find any familiar brand names like Jockey Calvin Klein or Fruit of the Loom. The only brand names (in English) that I could find were James Dean (that’s right, that rebel without a cause had a line of underwear named after him in Korea) and BYC and TRY (I have no idea what these acronyms meant, and I never bothered to find out).

“Well, you’re in Korea now,” I thought, “I’ll just have to make do with what’s available.”

The other problem was that they came in four sizes 90, 95, 100, and 105-but would a Korean medium/large be the same as a Western medium/large?

And then there was the timing of this underwear expedition. Imagine if you will a busy department store on a Sunday afternoon two weeks before Christmas. Now, intensify that by being in Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world and only able to speak a few sentences of Korean. That’s when the fun started.

No sooner had I picked up a package of underwear to check the size when out of nowhere three female clerks materialized to help me with my purchase.

“Panties?” one of the clerks inquired with a passable English accent.

“No, underwear,” I said, showing her the package.

Ne (Korean for yes), panties,” she said smiling.

Before I knew it, the three giggling clerks started to open up various packages of underwear for me to choose. Like some scene out of a musical, they all took turns holding up the “panties” for me to observe and hopefully select as they pranced around me.

I could feel my face getting redder and redder as they held out in front of me zebra-striped bikini briefs, polka-dotted bikini briefs, and even some camouflage ones.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see customers stopping and staring at this foreigner surrounded by these three clerks dancing around me with “panties” waving in front of my face.

I ended up buying five pairs of these “panties.” Later, I discovered that in Korea, “panties” was Konglish (Korean-English) for underwear for men.

Come Monday morning; I was ready to begin my sojourn as an English teacher in Korea wearing my new panties.

One thing which I liked about ELS (actually ELSI which stood for English Language Schools International and had schools overseas as well as a few in the States back in the 90s) was how they gave you a week of orientation to acclimate yourself with the program as well as give you time to settle in, recover from jet lag, and take care of immigration formalities.

I had to sit in on a few classes and at the end of the week I had to teach one class. If you had very little teaching experience, it was a pretty straightforward way to prepare you for when you started teaching. Unlike the horror story, I heard from one expat teacher I ran into at Kangnam subway station a few weeks later. He told me that when he arrived in Korea, his director took him straight from the airport to the language institute, threw a book at him and told him that his students were waiting for him.

During that first week, I also learned that I was very diligent. At least, almost every student I ran into told me that.

“What time do you wake up?” a student asked.

“Six o’clock,” I said.

“Hmm…you are diligent.”

“What did you do last night?” a female student asked.

“I wrote in my journal and read for one hour,” I replied.

“You are diligent,” she said. “I envy you.”

Koreans, especially language students, are sticklers for certain words in English-translated from Korean. Diligent was one such word. It carries a lot of weight in Korean, but when students told me how diligent I was, it just seemed strange. I heard diligent spoken more that first week in Korea than any other time in my life.

My luggage finally arrived on Thursday. Only took one week. And then, the airline expected me to go out to Kimpo to fetch it. It took a bit of pleading, but finally, it was agreed that it would be delivered to the language institute. I still had to lug it home, which was a bit of pain in the ass. That was the first and the last time I flew on Northwest.

Most new teachers who were at ELS worked the same schedule: 10:00-12:00 and then again 6:00-10:00 five days a week. The two-hour morning conversation class would be a breeze, but I could see that four-hour block in the evening getting a little grueling especially come the end of the week.

Going home on the subway at night wouldn’t be a problem because the rush hour was over. However, with there was an unusually high number of sloppy drunks on board given all the bars and a few discos around Kangnam Subway Station. Back in 1990, there were not too many foreigners in Korea and not too many traveling on the subway from Kangnam to Shinch’on at 10:15 at night. As such, people–usually the brave and drunken ones–would spot us and then, to impress their friends or in the case of one salaryman one night during my first week in Korea, some of his female colleagues.

He tried out what little English he knew, probably learned it at the same kind of language school that now employed me. His female companions giggled a lot, making sure to put a hand over their mouths.

The first couple of days in Korea, I kept on coming across all of these red and orange amoebae-shaped patterns of noodles splattered on the sidewalks and on the streets when I was going to school in the morning or coming home at night. I thought that maybe these noodles had been spilled when the garbage had been taken out, or one of these take-out delivery drivers had spilled them. I would soon find out the truth behind these amoebae-shaped patterns of noodles, or as I would soon begin to call them, “vomit landmines.”

After a night of drinking, a lot of people would stop off at some convenient store and slurp down bowls of instant noodles-or as they are called here, ramyon/ramen. Problem was ramen doesn’t mix too well with a stomach of beer and soju (Korean rice wine) and public vomiting is quite common. No one bats an eye when they see someone puking out their guts on the streets, in subway stations–pretty much anywhere.

Over the years, I’ve seen some of the most beautifully dressed women, immaculately applied makeup hunched over a trash can or squatting over the side of the road throwing up. And they are never alone. There’s always a friend nearby to help them.

“A good friend in Korea is someone who helps you throw up by pounding you on the back,” a student would tell me later when I inquired about this vomiting duet.

Hmm, guess it gives new meaning to the expression, “a friend in need, is a friend indeed.”

On Friday night at the end of that first week in Korea, I was walking to my apartment when I saw two salarymen throwing up in a trashcan. One of them saw me coming, and with one hand wiped away some of the vomit from the side of his mouth.

“Welcome to Korea,” he said as he wiped away the rest of the vomit from the corner of his mouth.

The last sound I heard, as I turned the corner and continued onto my apartment–located in the bowels of the concrete labyrinthine housing gulag-was their retching duet, throwing up in that trash can.

Go Dutch? Why not Go Greek or Go Italian?

English language learners, at least many of the students I have taught in Korea since I came here in 1990 are always looking for “English expressions/idioms” to spice up their language skills and “go native” as it were with colorful expressions. To be sure, whenever I have the chance I use these expressions in class or introduce them for a particular lesson.


Of these, to “go Dutch” is one of those English expressions which many students feel that if they use—and use a lot and correctly—will make them sound like a native speaker. This expression came up in class today (I was explaining the usage of “it’s on me” and “I’ll pick up the tab”) and some students asked me if I had ever used the expression to “go Dutch.” I couldn’t remember the last time I used it and not even sure if I have ever used it at all.


Just in case you’re curious about what the actual meaning of “go Dutch” means (and to save you the trouble of having to “Google” it, the expression “go Dutch,” also known as a “Dutch treat” or a “Dutch date,” simply means an informal agreement for each person to pay for his or her own expenses during a planned date or outing. To avoid any faus paux or confusion, the decision to “go Dutch” is usually made in advance.


Under certain social and financial circumstances, the idea to “go Dutch” allows larger groups of friends or co-workers to enjoy a night on the town without the worry of one host footing the entire bill. On the contrary, you probably wouldn’t want to “go Dutch” on a date. That would be a definite mood killer and perhaps ruin any chances of a romantic tryst afterwards.


After I had explained the usage of this term in class today, one of my students, asked me what the origins of this expression were. The phrase “going Dutch” probably originates from Dutch etiquette. In the Netherlands, it is not unusual to pay separately when dating.


Additionally, from what I have been able to glean from various sources, the origin of the phrase can be traced back to a time when England and the Netherlands fought constantly over trade routes and political boundaries during the 17th century. “The British used the term ‘Dutch’ in a number or derogatory or demeaning ways, including ‘Dutch courage’ (bravery through alcohol) and ‘Dutch treat’, which was actually no treat at all. The Dutch were said to be very stingy with their wealth, almost miserly, so the British used the word ‘Dutch’ informally to imply all sorts of negative behavior.”


Fortunately, the modern idea to “go Dutch” no longer carries the stigma of what the term had originally meant. It is simply a recognized bit of social jargon that sorts out any financial obligations as it were for a social outing.


The term can also be found in other countries. In Italy, the expression pagare alla romana can be translated as: “To pay like people of Rome” or “to pay like they do in Rome” – which has the same meaning as “going Dutch”. Some South American countries use the Spanish phrase pagar a la americana (which literally means to pay American style). In Thailand, the practice of “going Dutch” is referred to rather interestingly as “American Share” (as if to imply that the term comes directly from American popular culture) and in the Philippines, it is referred to as KKB, an acronym for Kanya Kanyang Bayad which can be translated into English as “pay for your own self.”


I have heard a lot of Korean students try to use this expression in all the years that I have been teaching in Korea. Some have got it right, others have fallen victim to it is Konglish (English/Korean) usage where things get a little lost in translation: “Dutch pay” as in “let’s Dutch pay” or “Let’s have Dutch pay” – which has always made me wonder, who is Dutch?


Sometimes the misuse of the expression has caused for some humorous, not to mention awkward moments in the classroom or when I have joined students for lunch or coffee.


One time when I had joined some students for coffee at Starbucks, a student who was just dying to try out the English he already had studied—when it came time to decide who would pay—said, “Let’s have the Dutch pay.”


I quickly looked around the room to see if there was anyone from the Netherlands who was going to pay for us. There wasn’t.


Yes, sometimes idioms have the tendency to get lost either in translation or usage.

Who’s the President of Chicago?

Kids say the darndest things—even when learning a foreign language



It’s another sweltering and sticky summer in Korea and I am doing my best to stay dry and cool. Fortunately my teaching schedule has been a light one so I don’t have to be out in the heat and humidity too much.


Unlike all the years I taught at another language institute and university in Seoul—where I taught university students and adults—here in Daejeon I also have to teach children during the summer when the kids are on vacation.


They’re called Summer English Camps, but there’s not much “camp” about them; not if sitting in a stuffy, hot classroom for 3-5 hours a day is a child’s idea of having a good time. When I was a kid summer camp was being outdoors, trying to make something out of Popsicle sticks, swimming, running, screaming, and telling ghost stories.


In Korea summer camp usually means studying English.


Summer English camps are big business in Korea and moneymakers for the schools and institutes that run them. The penchant for learning English in Korea spikes during vacation time when everyone—from elementary and middle school students to high school and university students—gets in the language mode or groove.


And that is what I have been stuck doing for the past two weeks. I say stuck not because I dread or despise teaching kids; it’s just because teaching kids is not my forte. I just don’t have the patience or the creativity that some more qualified teachers have to teach children. I have much respect for the teachers who do this day in and day out because it definitely takes a special person, not just to teach but also to inspire young learners.


Inasmuch as I have been struggling to come up with creative lessons for the 12-year-olds that I have to teach every day for an hour, it has been a lot of fun teaching them. These kids are from low-income families and this English camp, which runs for three weeks, is paid for by the government to help the kids upgrade their language skills.


I was quite surprised though on the first day of classes the other day to find out that these kids have some pretty good language skills already. Obviously somewhere along the line some teacher or teachers had been doing their job and making the learning of English, at least for some of the students fun and enjoyable. And some of kids even surprised me with the language skills they had already learned.


By day two, the kids had settled down (they study four hours a day) and had even come up with some English nicknames. They also had lots of questions for me including the most talkative and outgoing of the 15 students in the class a boy named Sonny.


Sonny? Where the heck did he come up with that one? Did he watch The Godfather the other night or what?


“Where are you from?” asked Sonny.


“I’m from Chicago,” I answered knowing that it’s easier to say Chicago than “I am from LaSalle, a small town near Chicago.”


“What’s Chicago like?” asked Sonny.


Good question.


“It has many tall buildings,” I replied, “and is next to a big lake.”


I figured they could handle most of the vocabulary I was using and they seemed quite satisfied with my answer. Sonny though, was saving the best question for last.


“Who’s the president of Chicago?” he asked.


It really caught me off guard and made me chuckle a little. I am sure when Mayor Richard Daley was alive, some people might have thought he was president.


I didn’t have the heart to want to correct Sonny; after all he had come up with some good questions, but I had to let him know that Chicago was not a country, but a city.


It made me think a little about a scene in the movie Dog Day Afternoon, when a failed bank robbery attempt turns into a police standoff and hostage crisis. After Sonny (played by Al Pacino) has made a deal with the police to be flown somewhere after they have released the hostages, he asks Sal (played by John Cazale) which country he would like to go.


“Wyoming,” answers Sal.


“Wyoming is not a country,” says Sonny.


I was faced with a similar dilemma because I had to inform my Sonny that Chicago was not a country but a city.


“Sonny, Chicago is not a country,” I said slowly and carefully as not to bruise his pride. “Chicago is a city in the US.”


Fortunately, Sonny and I were spared an awkward moment when another kid shouted, “Bush is the President of the US.”


That satisfied Sonny and I took some more questions from the class before we started our lesson.


However, I wonder if Sonny was onto something. Maybe the next president will be from Chicago.

The Race is On (with apologies to George Jones)

It’s 10:45am and I’ve got my class of ten beginning language learners doing a speaking activity in pairs. It’s a dialogue between two people asking what they like to do in their free time; the students, once they’ve read through the dialogue are supposed to substitute various “free time” activities like “listening to music” “reading books” and “watching TV” in the appropriate place in the dialogue. In ESL terms, it’s commonly known as a “substitution” drill.

For my students though, it is a race to finish all the substitutions.

One pair gets through all the substitutions in near record time and announces, “finish.”

Another pair, not far behind the first with their substitution mastery finishes next.


And another pair, feeling the heat and wanting to come in third is next.


(Many Korean language learners have a problem pronouncing the final “sh” sound on words like “finish,” “wash,” and “Bush.” In Korean, or Hangu-mal there is no final “sh” sound; however, there is a final “shi” sound. So, many beginning language students will say “finish-ee,” “wash-ee,” and “Bush-ee.” Now, I know teachers are not supposed to laugh when a student mispronounces a word, but when some students say, “Your President Bush-ee” I am sorry, that is just funny.)

I have been teaching English in Korea for 17 years now and one of the things (and believe me there are many) that has never ceased to amaze me is this notion of having to “finish” first in English class. Here are these students in an conversation class, learning a new language (or attempting to learn a new language) and what matters most to some students is not the fact that you are in a class-and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) one at that-where practicing as much as you can is everything (or at least should be everything), but that what is most important is finishing an activity first.

And announcing to the teacher and everyone in the class, “fin-ee-shee.”

I think a lot has to do with this “ppalli-ppalli” (hurry, hurry) mindset in Korea that is just as prevalent in society now as it was when I first came here. It’s hurry this and hurry that. It’s the way some people will dart across the street running between cars because they don’t want to wait a few minutes at the pedestrian crosswalk, the way some people will slurp down a bowl of ramen in record time, the way some people will walk out of a restaurant still putting on their shoes or the way students will race through an exercise to finish first.

Sometimes I just want to tell my students to slow down. There is plenty of English to learn; you don’t have to learn it all in class today.

Then again, maybe they are “finished” for the day-which sort of reminds me of this Gary Larson Far Side cartoon where a pudgy, bespectacled boy sitting in a class raises his hand and asks the teacher if he can be excused because “his brain is full.”

“November Rain” in April

This might not be what you expected (though it was raining here the other day) but there is a Guns N’ Roses connection. Trust me.

Yesterday in one of my classes I was teaching the reduction of “and” in expressions like “cream and sugar”—“cream ‘n’ sugar” and “bread and butter” – “bread ‘n’ butter” from the textbook and thought I would come up with a few of my own: “rock ‘n’ roll” and “Guns N’ Roses.”

The activity, at least the way I was setting it up before the students had to do some choral repetition was going quite well until….

“Teacher, what is a Guns ‘n’ Roses?”

For now I would let the wrong question word and obvious subject/verb agreement errors slide. What I wasn’t going to let slide and what surprised me most was that in a class of 27 students, no one had ever heard of Guns N’ Roses.

Well, it’s been nearly fifteen years since the band was together. Back in the early 90s Guns N’ Roses ruled in Korea as far as a heavy metal/rock and roll favorite among university students—especially when Use Your Illusion I and II were released here. I can remember going to the Block Hof, this video bar in Shinch’on (near Yonsei University) and watching one Guns N’ Roses video after another back in 1993.

Now, it seemed that the band, at least for these students at Woosong, had been all but forgotten.

Hoping to jog their memories I mentioned a few songs like “November Rain” (that song still rocks as does the video!) but the students shook their heads. Now far from being a big fan of the band itself, I do like this song a lot and was surprised that no one had ever heard of this song.

“Sing us the song!”

Yeah, right.

One student thought that song was by The Beatles.

Like I said, I wasn’t going to let this—not ever hearing of the band—slide. I joked with the students and told them that their homework for next week is to listen to the song or watch the video. I’ll be curious to see, come next Tuesday in class, to see how many students will actually take me up on this.

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