Excuse me, are you saying there’s something wrong with my face?!

When I was a teenager, like most people, I was pretty self-conscious of my looks. I thought my nose and teeth were too large and thought I was hideous when I had a pimple or two and my hair was the worst thing imaginable. It didn’t help, of course, that at the time everyone seemed to be straightening their hair until it was flatter than flat could be. Luckily, this was a pretty short phase for me, and most of the time, though I didn’t like certain features, I still thought I was relatively pretty. It’s sad to realize how rare that is, and even sadder to be in my late twenties and know so many people my age who still hate the way they look. I’m lucky to fit in pretty well with current beauty standards and have clear skin and straight teeth (thanks to braces) but I know a lot of people who also fit these arbitrary standards and still aren’t happy with the way they look.

One of the things in Korean culture that I just can’t accept is the strong emphasis on one standard of beauty and all the money, time and effort spent on attaining that, because if you can just look like that ideal, your life will be so much better. Of course, being a foreigner, I’m exempt, in general from these exact standards- they still show a preference, for sure, sometimes a very huge one, but I don’t have to wear make-up, or dress a certain, or fit exactly into a certain Korean standard, because foreigners come with a different set of expectations. So I definitely can’t give a real Korean perspective on this issue, it’s very much a situation of being on the outside looking in.

I had a few conversations with one of my coworkers and was trying to explain why I thought it was bad for Korea girls to be getting plastic surgery on their eyes at such a young age (apparently some get surgery as a middle school graduation present). I told my coworker that when I was that age, I hated my nose and thought it was too big. Before I could explain that I later came to like my face the way it is, long nose and all, she said “You should get nose surgery while you are in Korea! It is very inexpensive and easy!”
Somehow I don’t think I got my point across. My face is not “perfect” or same as what you see on make-up models or on magazine covers, but it’s me. It has character. I don’t want to look like anyone else.

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My opinions on this subject were further confirmed by my photos. In Korea, photos, even ID photos, are habitually photoshopped, sometimes so drastically that it may not even really look like the same person! About two years ago my photo was taken for work and it was a lovely photo. The lighting was great, and I’d just gotten a haircut, and it all looked great. Then I got the pictures back and they’d been photoshopped. And it looked like me, but not. It was extremely weird, and I didn’t like it at all! My nose was shortened, my skin was whitened, my chin-dimple was erased, and my smile lines were removed.

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My coworkers raved over what a great picture it was. I looked at it and saw my character, humor, and experiences erased. The same thing happened again with my Korean driver’s license photo. I look shiny and plastic and unreal and “perfect” according to a standard that I don’t even care about. In my opinion, looking “perfect” is way overrated. I’d rather look like myself.

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Awkward Duck’s face after photoshop

Random unphotophopped, unfiltered selfie vs my Korean driver’s license photo. My nose!

Prepositions

Prepositions are tricky little things, when you think about it. When I was min eighth grade, my English teacher has us all draw a “Preposition Mountain.” Basically, me having very limited drawing skills at the time, I had to draw a hill with little stick people all over it to illustrate the prepositions. “On the mountain,” “up the mountain,” “over the mountain,” “beneath the mountain,” etc. Before that, I don’t recall ever really thinking much about prepositions at all.

The first time I realized how tricky prepositions really were was when I tutoring ESL student at my university and one of them asked me “What does ‘at’ mean?”

Prepositions went on to be a big problem with those students, and every student I’ve had since. Think about it: the only difference between doing something kind and “cooking for your mother” and preparing meal for unknown cannibals is the little preposition “for.”

For the college students I tutored, location was the frustrating thing. After they kept saying “The bus stop on the university” I corrected them and told them it was “at.” I even drew them a picture.

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The next time, they said “When we got at the bus.”

“At?” I said. “On the bus, not at the bus.”

“Teacher!” said one of the students, drawing a quick picture, “Not on, at!”

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Pencils

57f6b-p1011906Back in Cheorwon, I demanded that my students bring pencils to class. I wasn’t going to carry around pencils all the time and didn’t have one designated English room to keep a handy stock pencils in. I continued this battle when I moved to Donghae, even though I do have my own classroom. I tried. I tried so hard. But it’s still generally a win if the student shows up with their textbook, at least, and just a bonus if they bring their pencil.

When I made the list of materials for camp last year, I requested, among other things, a box of 25 pencils. We didn’t use the pencils during camp, because apparently children who come to camp are good at remembering their own pencils and also, I failed to request a pencil sharpener, so the pencils remained unsharpened until I remembered to bring one in, which was not until camp was over. Oops!

When the new semester started, I sharpened the pencils beautifully and even made an Instagram post with a quote from You’ve Got Mail. Because who can possibly look at a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils without thinking of You’ve Got Mail? I was happy I could finally stop bothering over the students who continually failed to bring a pencil to class. Of course, there was the possibility that the pencils would disappear, but I was prepared for this. I carefully labeled each pencil “ENG” and explained to all the students that the pencils belong in the English room, and they should never be taken out of the English room. If they accidentally took one, and found it in their pencil case later, they should return it.  That didn’t work.
Do children eat erasers? Because I can really think of no other explanation for the phenomena that occurs in my classroom. My pencils have erasers when I put them in the classroom, but after being used by a child just once, the whole eraser is gone! I am not sure if they merely bite off the eraser for the fun of it, or if they actually consume it, but as they are middle school boys, I’ve seen them eat worse things than erasers, so it wouldn’t really surprise me.

There are three sad little eraser-less pencils left from the original 25. Middle school English rooms are just where pencils go to die.

I am now preparing pencils with enormous red bows on top in an attempt to prevent students from wandering off with them. I’m not optimistic. I have a feeling the red bows will be torn off after the first day.

I brought in more pencils and my co-teacher equipped me with little label stickers in Korean. It’s still not perfect, but a few weeks in and there are 14/16 new pencils remaining, so that seems pretty good.

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On the other hand, maybe the pencils are not really being destroyed by the students. One of my 1st year students drew a cute picture for me in our design-an-animal class, and it might just illustrate the real truth of what happens:

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Rhincel

The pencils sprout legs, a head with a horn and even a little tail, and the happy little Rhincels then run off, never to be used for English class again.

Goodbyes

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That Awkward Duck Cautiously Explores New Waters

The expat life is fun and exciting, and even after nearly three years, it never ceases to be full of surprises. One of the best surprises has been the friendships. When you’re physically separated from all your friends and family and even acquaintances, every familiar face takes on a new value. You make unlikely friends, who maybe, you wouldn’t have even given a chance back home where you’re spoiled for choice with few cultural or language barriers to contend with.

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I’m not so sure about you…

And you make likely friends too, who make you feel at home, even when you’re thousands of miles away. And each of these friends becomes so precious, because they are all that’s familiar- your “family” in a foreign place and a foreign culture. A friendship like this can become closer in the space of a few months than some friendships will ever be.
But the expat life is full of goodbyes, because not everyone stays- in fact most don’t. And while there are always new faces who can become new friends, there is no replacement for a person you love. The people who were easy to talk with and a pleasure to listen to, the ones you went to for encouragement and comfort, and the ones who needed you, too.
I remember when my brother and I used to delay our cousins’ departure as long as possible, keeping our parents chatting, and saying one more goodbye, giving one more hug, and then running alongside their car to the end of the block, waving frantically. They lived only a couple hours’ drive away.
So I tell myself it’s not that far, just a plane ticket or two and we’ll see each other again, and it will be another fun and exciting adventure. Goodbyes are still so hard!

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Driving in Korea, Part 1

I recently bought a car, got my Korean license, and began driving in Korea. It was really nerve-wracking at first, but I’m slowly becoming accustomed to some of the quirks of the Korean roads as compared with American ones. Luckily for me, Koreans drive on the right side of the road. I probably wouldn’t have even wanted to try driving here if they drove on the left. But despite the similarities, there’s still a significant amount of confusion. For example this sign:

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Which looks exactly like a direction to crash into one another, but actually means that the right lane ends ahead.

Then there are the lane markings. The lane markings are the bane of my existence, at the moment. In America, a lane marked like this:

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Means that it’s a right turn lane. Easy, right?

But in Korea, this just means you can turn right. Which is so unnecessary, because anyone with a shred of common sense should know that you can turn right from a right lane unless there is a sign saying you can’t turn right. But, no, Korea has to mark it, making me think I’m always in the wrong lane. If the lane is actually right-turn only, it is marked like this:

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What?

Why is “Don’t go straight” used instead of “Turn right”?

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That Awkward Duck trying to figure out lane markings

Driving on the freeways is relatively easy, except when there’s a junction, and they forget to put signs saying which lane is going where, which does happen occasionally.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that a shocking number of people drive around with their lights off when it’s pitch black outside… Are you asking for an accident?!

You can also park basically anywhere in Korea. “No Parking” signs appear to be mere suggestions, parallel parking+ bike lane along the main street in my neighborhood is used as angled parking. In fact, most rules of the road seem to be more suggestions than actual rules.

Korean Style Parking:

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Pie

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I made these. Yeah, I know, I’m awesome.

 

I am a good cook. I know this. But I still want other people to tell me this. And so I feed people. I guess this makes me a pretty awesome neighbor/friend to people who enjoy eating, but at times, I offer to make things even though I may not really have the time to do it. And most commonly, this happens with pie. Because… there’s no substitute for pie. If I say “I’ll make soup for you tomorrow” and then tomorrow comes and I don’t feel like cooking call you up and say “Let’s go out to eat instead.” It’s no big deal. But there is no going back on your word if pie is promised. This had led to many frantic late-night pie- making sessions. Which is perfectly fine, because I love pie too. Just please, give me lots of compliments and be sure to tell me how awesome my pies are. And if my kitchen isn’t clean… my excuse is pie.

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That Awkward Duck Rushes to Make Pie

That Awkward Duck vs. Kalguksu

Kalguksu is, in my opinion, a lovely Korean dish (unlike Makguksu, which is disgusting). I love seafood, so anything that contains shellfish is usually a win for me. On the other hand, the literal translation of kalguksu is “knife noodles.” This is every bit as difficult to eat as it sounds.

Kalguksu is a soup. It’s a little spicy, and it has mussels or clams in the shell and lots of slippery noodles. In Korea, we eat with chopsticks and a spoon, which normally, I think is great. I’ve developed my chopstick skills carefully over the years, partly due to an embarrassing experience a few years ago involving kalguksu.

In spring of 2012, I was a student teacher at Korea University’s Sejong campus. I often went the “English Café” to meet people and just hang out. An English only café that served free (though instant) coffee and toast (though I had to bring my own nutella), the English café was a great place, and as a student ESL teacher I was highly encouraged to hang out there and help people practice English.

Unfortunately, I was pretty ignorant of Korean culture at the time, I mean, I could tell you about Kimchi and hanok houses, but I didn’t know anything about how Koreans interact, particularly how girls and guys interact.

And thus it was that I unknowingly and accidentally went on dates a few times (this isn’t even the most awkward “date,” but that’s another story for another day). The first time, I was newly arrived in the country and had only rudimentary chopstick skills. I was invited to lunch by a Korean guy I had been chatting with. I thought this was not a date because he had a friend with him, but apparently in Korea, it is sometimes ok to have a 3rd wheel on the first date.

The guys were nice enough, but they took me out for kalguksu. I remember just staring at the bowl of noodles filled with shells in dismay. I tried to eat it, but my lack of chopsticks skills was immediately apparent. I watched in humiliation as my “date” took my bowl, removed all the clams and mussels from their shells, and cut up my noodles. Then my chopsticks were taken away and I was given a fork. The ultimate shame.

Motivated by this humiliation, I insisted on using chopsticks to eat practically everything, until I was every bit as good at it as my Korean friends. In fact, my principal used to make fun of my former co-teacher, saying the waygookin* was better at using chopsticks.

Despite the fact that I have skills on toast, kalguksu remains a challenge, and before you go all judgey-judge on me, let me explain: women, apparently, are not supposed to slurp. The first time my school went out for kalguksu, I just copied all of the other (male) teachers around me and slurped my noodles just fine, but my (female) vice-principal nudged me and demonstrated how she and the other women were eating the kalguksu. The steps to eating kalguksu without slurping are as follows:

  1. Remove all shellfish from shells using spoon and chopsticks. Place shells in the empty bowl provided.
  2. Holding the spoon in left hand and the chopsticks in the right, pick up the noodles using the chopsticks.
  3. Place noodles on spoon.
  4. Transfer noodles from spoon to mouth.
  5. Repeat.

This is WAY too complicated! Did I mention that this is soup and the noodles are very slippery? You can only pick up a couple noodles at a time, or they won’t all fit on the spoon, and will slide off (splattering your face with soup).

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That Awkward Duck Trying to Eat Kalguksu

We’ve eaten kalguksu a few times in the last few weeks, so I’m developing a knack for this, and transferring the noodles from bowl to chopsticks to spoon to mouth does allow the noodles to cool a bit, which is helpful, but the main problem is that while I am delicately balancing noodles on my spoon, the male teachers are slurp-slurping away and by the time I’ve taken three bites they’ve already finished (I don’t think they stop to breathe.)

When this happens, I have two options. A) Keep eating awkwardly while everyone else watches or B) Go hungry. I always try to do option A but the stares as I eat inevitably become so uncomfortable that I cave and go for B. Good thing I always keep snacks in my desk drawer!

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That Awkward Duck Slurps Her Noodles

*Waygookin means “foreigner”