Contrast and Connections



I come up with the idea for most of my blog posts while laying in bed trying to sleep. Something about the lack of responsibility, the lack of focus, frees my mind to wander and make connections. And writing is all about making connections. So here’s some connecting.

This is an example of something that happens often. I’m teaching a fifth grade class. We finish a reading activity and I check the answers. I toss out a ball. Whoever it lands near answers the question. That person then throws the ball to whoever they want for the next question, and so on.

In Korea, students often stand when they answer. The ball comes to this kid. He stands. I say, “Read the answer for #4, please.” But the kid just stands there doing nothing.

I think to myself, “Not this again, dammit.” He’s not being disrespectful because he’s standing at attention and looking right at me. He’s just doing nothing.

Mouth slightly ajar. Eyes wide. Always those two things.

I ask, “Do you have the answer?” I wait for a while. Nothing. The class doesn’t start to snicker the way they would if this was something strange.

“If you don’t have the answer, it’s okay.” Nothing. He doesn’t try to give an answer, he doesn’t tell me that he didn’t finish, he doesn’t even say something in Korean to my co teacher. He just stands there.

“Is there a problem?” He’s like a UFC fighter curled up in a ball at the end of the round, eating elbows to the head and waiting for the damn bell to ring.

This happens a lot with many different students, and I have no idea what to do about it. I just want to move the class forward, but they won’t respond to my questions, they won’t seek help, they won’t do anything. I thought it only happened when they try to speak English, but recently I’ve seen it happen when my co teacher is speaking Korean.


This started happening more often recently because I’m trying to change the way I teach at my school and the change is not working. I think it’s clashing with how the students are trained to learn. That’s frustrating as a teacher, but fascinating as a writer. I’m conflicted.

I’m trying to change the way I teach because some of the private schools are producing kids that speak English very well, but the public schools are not. I think it’s because of the English curriculum the public schools use.

The chapters in our books are are based on single phrases. Just looking at the sixth grade book now, we have “He has short, curly hair and big, brown eyes,” “I want to be a doctor,” “I want to feed the pigs,” and so on. Every chapter has a page for listening, speaking, reading, writing, and then a review game.

The structure is great. The problem is the execution. “I want to feed the pigs,” is the exact phrase they hear at the start of the chapter in the listening section. In the speaking section they practice scripted conversations that all revolve around “I want to feed the pigs.” And so on, up through the test where they get questions like, “I ____ __ feed the pigs.” They get about four alternatives they can swap out, like “I want to play soccer,” and “I want to eat kimbap.” But they’re still just memorizing phrases instead of learning the building blocks of English.

It would be like a math class that only teaches two plus two equals four. You watch a video where characters are in a situation which shows that two plus two equals four. You do worksheets with different word problems to demonstrate how two plus two equals four. You then take a test where you have to solve for “Y” in the equations “Y+2=4,” “2+Y=4,” and the grand finale, “2+2=Y.”

You’ll never forget what two plus two equals, but you sure as hell can’t do math.

This is why Korean students study English for over a decade in the public school, but can’t speak the language. (Source #1) (Source #2)

Now I’m trying to teach creative use of English with vocab and grammar the kids already know, just like I was trained to do in LA. But it’s not working. Most of them freeze up like I described unless they are absolutely certain of their answer. They aren’t willing to take a chance.

I can only guess at why this happens, so here’s my guess. I see culture as a set of slider scales. Like the kind you have on your phone. Slide the scale between full volume and no volume. Full brightness and no brightness. Except in culture it’s full formality and low formality. Full individualism and low individualism. We’ve all got a bit of everything, but we sit at different places on the scale.

I have no idea if this is accurate. I’ve read zero sources. But I’ve done some travelling and I met a ton of people from a ton of cultures when I was teaching English in LA. I can only say what I see, and so far it matches what I see.


My best guess is that these freeze ups happen because Korea is pretty close to full power on the “mistake stigma” scale. They often have a very clear, right way to do things and there is no room for variation. I talked a lot more about this in a previous post.

The book’s questions are very clearly right or wrong. When I call on a student they are either sure they have it or sure they don’t. No need for hesitation. But the freeze ups are happening more often now because introducing creative language brings a range of color into what was once black or white.

We need perspective to understand anything about culture. So here’s an example from someone at the polar opposite side of the scale.

Back at the language school in LA, I liked to start new classes with “hotseat,” my favorite speaking activity. It’s simple. One person sits in a chair at the front of the room. The “hotseat.” I set a timer for three minutes. When I say go, anyone can ask the person in the hotseat whatever they want. I just tell them to play nice.

Most of my students in LA were about eighteen to twenty-five, and they were from all over the world. This example comes from an elective class for high level students, which means they were mostly European.

I think I can remember the nationalities of everyone in that class. We had a few French speakers from Belgium and France, as well as a Flemish speaker from Belgium. There were three or four German speakers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We had a two Norwegians. One Czech. Two Japanese. One Vietnamese. One Taiwanese.  One Peruvian and one Venezuelan.

One of the girls from Austria went to the hotseat first. Then a girl from Belgium. Then the lady from Vietnam. This class was almost entirely female. Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.


The activity went smoothly. Questions were clear and answers were satisfactory.

“Where are you from?”


“Do you like it?”


“What’s good about Austria.”

”It’s beautiful. And the people are nice.”

And so on. Typically the first couple questions would come quickly. Then as the three minutes went on, questions would slow down and the person in the hotseat would sit in silence, waiting for someone to raise their hand.

Eventually the girl from Venezuela came to the hotseat. She was from the lowest level homeroom in this elective class. But you wouldn’t have guessed it by watching.

“Do you like Venezuela?”

That was the only question asked. She spoke to us about Venezuela for the entire three minutes. She said she really loves her country. She said every neighborhood becomes like a family. She told us about the time when her neighbor’s little boy got sick and everyone in the community came out to help him. How one family would take care of him while the mom went to work and how another family knew a doctor that could help him and so on. She would stop every so often to see if there were questions, but when she saw there weren’t she would happily go on talking about her country.

When she finished, a few people laughed. They weren’t laughing at her, I don’t think. It was just so obviously different that they couldn’t help laughing.

When she returned to her seat, I said, “That was some culture right there. Did you see it?”

That was not simply a talkative person, I told them. I had been teaching there for long enough and seen hundreds of students from around the world come and go. That wasn’t just a single talkative person, that was culture. That was an entirely different way of having a conversation.

It made me think of all the times I had gotten a new class and scanned the nationalities on my roster to determine what kind of conversations my class would respond to. If it was all European and Asian, there was a good chance I needed more structured conversation activities. But if there were Latin Americans in the class, they would get the ball rolling if I used more open-ended conversation activities. They were good at navigating those shades of color in a conversation that  is not black and white.

I didn’t do this when I first started teaching there. At first I thought, as many Americans do, that every individual is a unique snowflake. As if culture doesn’t even exist. Also when I first started teaching there, I almost lost my job multiple times because so many European students hated my class.

Over time, I learned to change my class’s conversation style to fit the ways different cultures communicate. It was a survival technique. I used it because it worked. Not every time, but often enough.

The early American immigrants came from Europe, and therefore we often think we are more connected to Europe. But I always found conversing with the Latin Americans more comfortable. I knew how to read their social queues and they knew how to read mine. I bet if I were teaching fifth graders in Colombia right now, I would not have students freezing up all the time. If they were uncertain, they would give it a try rather than awkwardly standing in silence.

As I’ve said before, one of the greatest benefits of travel is learning about your own culture by contrasting it with the culture you’re travelling in. There is something distinct about the way Americans talk and interact with each other. And I mean “America” in the big sense here, from the top of Canada down to the tip of Chile. We don’t care for formality and we’d rather look stupid than boring. If we’re not sure of something, we’ll still give it a shot. Who cares. We respect the effort and forgive the outcome.

And this may be a stretch, but I’m feeling fanciful. If all that’s true, then maybe there is a sense in which this is still the land of freedom. Freedom to express yourself in a different way. Freedom to make an attempt, even if it turns out to be wrong.

And if it isn’t true, at least I didn’t freeze up and say nothing at all.


Moments in Korea


I got the biggest nod of approval there’s ever been yesterday.

First, you have to understand that Koreans haven’t adjusted to having foreigners in their country yet. Older Korean guys in particular lose their mind if I just say “hello” in Korean or if I show that I can actually use chopsticks.

I’ve lived here for three years, by the way.

Here’s what happened. I was late for work, so I ran out to the taxi stand. There’s never enough taxis in the morning, so I had to wait in line behind a young guy and a painfully old couple. Or I thought the old couple was in line. They were standing a bit off from where the line usually is and they weren’t watching the road.

The young guy caught a taxi and the old couple didn’t budge, so I scooted ahead. I tried to remember how to ask in Korean if they were waiting in line. I figured out how to throw a sentence together just as I caught a taxi for myself.

“Taxi gada shipayo?” I asked. After I said this, a Korean man in his early 40s was staring at me as he walked by on the sidewalk. I didn’t pay attention to him. You get used to people looking at you over here.

“Ne (yes).” They said, and waddled into the taxi I had stopped.

After they got into the taxi, I looked up and the early 40s man was still staring at me even though he was way past me now. I finally met his eyes. It felt like he was waiting for me to look at him. He clearly wanted to make sure I saw him as he gave the sternest nod of approval a man has ever given. He made the same face the president makes when he awards a Medal of Honor.



I’m on the subway in Seoul, going back home after tutoring a student. It’s the middle of the day and there’s no seats available, so I read my book standing up. It took months to perfect this skill on the subway, and I proudly flaunt it any chance I get.

I stand in front of a man sleeping on the corner seat. He’s out cold. I’m happy he’s sleeping because otherwise it looks like I’m staring at the seated person in front of me when I read.

Three stops later, a mother gets on my train. She has two little kids orbiting her, a boy and a girl.  She’s carrying a third on her back. The kids are loud and excited. I suddenly realize that you almost never see kids on the subway here. I have no idea if that’s true back home as well. I’m from Los Angeles.

The mother tries to tries to shush her children, but it’s impossible to keep them completely calm. That’s something universal. Kids are just kids in every culture.

Inevitably, the mother tires out before the kids do. She gets them down to an embarrassing but acceptable noise level and concedes defeat. The passengers in the subway don’t complain. They saw she put up a good fight. We’re all in this together now.

The mother looks up at the subway map while holding onto the louder of the two kids–the boy, of course.  I’m looking down at my book, but out of the corner of my eye I see the little girl walk up to the sleeping man in front of me. She’s just inches from his face. As if in slow motion, I see her begin to reach her hand up to touch his face. My book is down now and I’m locked into this. It’s so rare that you get to see something unexpected happen in Korea. I could simply shush her away from the man, but I have absolutely no idea what’s about to happen when she wakes him up and I’m ecstatic.

Her hand reaches his face and startles him awake. As soon as he’s arrived back in the waking life, he realizes the little girl woke him up and smiles at her. He, a stranger, then reaches out his hand and touches the girls face as he says something to her. A male stranger on a subway reached out and touched someone else’s child, and no one thought twice about it.

“This is some culture,” I think, as I watch with eyes wide open. “This is an interaction I would never see in the US.”

He says something to her I don’t understand, then stands up and offers his seat to the mother and children.

He’s now standing next to me and I keep watching him. He’s looking around, still dazed and confused. Koreans are incredibly strong at the game of “I didn’t see nothing,” so the only eyes he meets are mine. Without saying anything, we share a brief chuckle over the incident, then I get back to reading my book.


North Korean People

I didn’t know she was North Korean when I first saw her. I mean, I had never met a North Korean before volunteering with TNKR—which stands for Teach North Korean Refugees—so I didn’t know what to expect. I thought they would look more refugee-ish. People whose hardship urged them to risk their lives by running away from a tyrant. I expected conservative, homely people. I did not expect this beauty. The kind of beauty that could disrupt a quiet room.

I thought she was a South Korean intern until an awkward handshake—imagine shaking hands without knowing what a handshake is—and a greeting that fell flat because she didn’t know what “how are you” means.

Eleven other volunteer tutors and seven North Korean students were in this room for TNKR’s matching session. The goal is to allow the volunteers and students to meet face to face in order to try to make the best, most comfortable matches possible. Casey Lartigue and Eunkoo Lee, who founded TNKR in 2013, want the students to choose their own tutors because they believe in student-led education.

They don’t learn much English in North Korea, but the refugees need English to survive in the competitive job market of Seoul. Even after surviving hunger, escaping the regime, getting into South Korea, and adjusting to life here, their journey still isn’t over because they need to learn a new language. The work TNKR does is critical and no one else provides it. This is a very young non-profit. You can support their growth here.

Here’s how the matching sessions works. First the volunteers introduce themselves, talk about their teaching strengths, and say how many students they’re willing to accept. Then the students introduce themselves and say what their goals are.

After introductions are finished, Casey and Eunkoo call out the students one by one so they can choose a tutor. When all the students have chosen one, they can continue choosing more until they’re satisfied. Some students chose up to seven tutors and some only chose one.

Three students chose me. One of them got a job and had to quit the program after only one meeting. I’ve never met the second because she was busy with university final exams. The third student who chose me was the room disrupting beauty.

I can’t say her name or show any pictures. Most of the students want to remain anonymous. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t want North Korea to know they’ve escaped or because they don’t want to be outed as a North Korean in South Korean society. A mix of both, most likely. Still, we need something to call her because “the beauty” is reductive. I’m going to call her “C.” Not “A” because “A” can be a full word and not “B” because then you’d think it stands for “beauty.” Come on, let’s be adults here.

“C” and I had our first class the day after the matching session.

In the first class, I didn’t even think about where she was from. It was just fun. C is an absolute beginner in English, so we just played games. I brought colored erasers with me and taught her how to say, “The pink eraser is on the black eraser. The red eraser is next to the blue eraser” and so on. We spent an hour playing with erasers. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, this was fun.

The second time, it bubbled to the surface. She got a call from her father during the lesson. Her parents are still in North Korea.

It’s illegal for a North Korean to call South Korea. C told me the call goes from North Korea to China, then is transferred to South Korea. When the call finished, she apologized for the interruption and told me that her mother has been sick for a while. Her father was giving her an update. She said it’s going okay, so we continued with the lesson.

Learning a language is a painful process and can be infuriating, especially for beginners. I had been impressed with C’s patience and positive attitude. But I saw her get frustrated for the first time after the call.

When the lesson finished, we walked back to the subway station. Her phone rang again. When the call finished, she said, “My father…. give me money.”

For a moment I thought that must be the secret to this unlikely beauty. She’s a refugee, but from the North Korean upper-class. She caught the first class underground railroad out of the North.

But I knew she hadn’t learned reported speech (“he said..” “they told me…”), so I pursued it. “You mean, he gives you money or he wants you to give him money?”

She said, “I give him money. North Korea people…” she patted her belly. “Hungry.”

“I see.”

“But I have no money.”

We said goodbye in the subway station. She went west and I went east. I watched her board her train. No one realized she was from the North. No one even turned their head. She sat down under an advertisement for plastic surgery and next to a college aged girl captivated by texting—probably about plans for going out. Business men walked by, talking about business plans in their business suits. But C was thinking about how she could make money for her hungry parents in North Korea.

Being The Other

I’ve just finished work and I’m walking to the bus stop. A five year old Korean girl glides towards me on a scooter. She wears a Taekwondo uniform. White belt. Her eyes are wide and fixed on me. Her mouth loosely held open. It’s probably the closest she’s ever been to a person that doesn’t look Korean, especially without her parents around. She has so many questions she can’t even form in Korean, much less in whatever language I might speak. Eyes still fixed on me, she scoots right off the sidewalk and stumbles onto the grass.

Korea is one of the top twenty economies in the world, but its globalization has only just started. Their technology is used in cell phones that connect people around the world, yet many people in this country live their whole life without ever talking to someone who is not Korean.

I can’t deny this is a fun part of being out here. Little kids from across the street will wave and yell “Hello” before their mothers can shush them.

Every time I go shopping or order food, it’s an event as the server and I struggle to make communication and feel the pride of hard won victory when we both come to an understanding.

There’s a convenience store down the road from me managed by a man in his 50s. He gets excited anytime a foreigner comes to the shop because he gets to practice English, which he speaks surprisingly well. When he speaks English, it feels like he’s only half-way in the present and I see the unmistakable glimmer of nostalgia in his eyes. I’m certain his mind is going back to a time when he was making use of the English he now speaks so well. I wonder when it was and who he was with.

There’s a few bars around my apartment. When I go out at night, there’s groups of drunk middle-aged couples roaming the streets, hopping from bar to bar.  Inevitably, one of these groups will have a mischievous guy who says “Hi” just loud enough so his friends know he’s only being silly. He says it with the same innocent excitement as those kids yelling from across the street. Drunk men are children.

It may sound obnoxious, but it really is fun because there’s such an innocent feel in Korean culture. They’re not warm like Americans. They don’t open easily to strangers. But they are extremely kind and cheerful. I never feel threatened for my foreignness. I feel like a curiosity. And damn it, it’s fun.

If I’m a curiosity, I can’t imagine how it is for black people here. I had a few black friends when I lived in Busan. One of them caused a car accident as he was walking down the street because the driver was looking at him and not the road.

That same friend also noticed that it’s common for new foreign teachers to hit a phase of culture shock where they start complaining about everything. It usually takes a month or two, once the wonder of being in a new place wears off. They start complaining about having to stay at school when class is finished and old ladies not wanting to sit next to them on the bus and kids staring at them on scooters and so on. My friend pointed out that it’s mostly white foreign teachers who complained. He said that as a black man in the U.S., he was already used to these experiences.

Being different out here is fun for me because it’s temporary. But if this was permanent? Hm.

So if you’re reading this, Marcus, thanks for that perspective.

Looking In From The Outside.

Damn, I miss American culture this time. I missed it last time too, but I didn’t know it. I had no clue what American culture was because I had nothing to compare it to. Then I spent two years living in Korea and, more importantly, three years watching cultures from almost every part of the world pack into my English language class in Los Angeles.

You can’t know your culture without knowing other cultures. It’s like someone asking you if a wine is more oaky or cedary when it’s the first glass you’ve ever had. Here’s where the USA sits among world cultures.

We’re warmer than Europe and Asia, but colder than Latin America and Arabic speaker. I don’t know much about inland and western African cultures because we didn’t have many students from there, but I imagine we’re colder than them too.

Europeans come here and are schocked by how openly people talk with strangers. One student told me she was waiting at a crosswalk when someone asked where she was from. She said she was from Austria, and the stranger kept talking and had so many questions. She felt like it was fake because this person didn’t truly want to be a real friend, so the interest must not be sincere.

At first, this accusation shocked me because I never thought it could even be considered fake. I sincerely am interested in strangers. But shock turned into numbed annoyance over the years as I heard it again and again and learned the European personality is to call anything not-European fake or silly or second-rate.

Latin Americans, on the other hand, are frustrated because Americans feel so closed off. However, Latin Americans convey this feeling with a smile instead of a sneer.

American culture is almost certainly the most individualistic, for better or worse. That is one of the biggest differences we have with Korea, which is communal in the extreme. So much so that most Koreans live with their parents until they get married, and some continue after that. In Korea, they connect more to their identity as a community than their identity as an individual. In the US, we do the opposite.

I think there’s a connection between the individualism and the creativity that comes out of the US. Creativity flourishes when play is allowed. Play can’t happen when making a mistake is stigmatized. Instead of stigmatizing those who step out of line and try different things, we celebrate it. We have to. It’s a survival strategy in a culture as diverse as ours.

There’s a professional computer gamer (yeah, that’s a thing now) named Idra who thought he was making a point about gaming, but actually made a great point about culture. He’s American, but lived and competed in Korea for many years. He noticed that when a new strategy in the game he played becomes dominant, Koreans and Americans react to it different. Koreans will practice that one strategy into mechanical perfection. Americans will test for alternative strategies to counter it.

Our individualism can be harmful too. It’s easier for the community to forget about individuals who slip through the cracks. It can lead to selfishness and ego. I think it even has a hand in the dominance of fast food, as many families don’t give time to sit down and eat together.

Seeing people from all these cultures also gave me a better opinion of American education. Not that we’re great, because there’s clearly big problems we have to work on. But more because these college age kids were equally as embarrassing. And the school I worked at was an expensive language school too, so these were the upper crust kids.

Americans get a bad rap for not knowing geography. Europeans love to say that Americans don’t know anything about the world. I had this one student from a mostly European class that asked if I had seen the YouTube video which proved Americans are stupid because they couldn’t place countries on a map. I told him I had seen it and I doubted he or the other students could do much better. I pulled up a world map, everyone lined up, then they took turns calling out a country.

They were only calling obscure European countries. Azerbaijan, Moldova, etc. I said that wasn’t satisfying. “Ecuador,” I called out. The location is in the title, but the student was looking for it on the southern coast of Africa.

“Laos,” I called next.

“That’s not a country,” was the response. I told her it was next to Vietnam, but she couldn’t find that either.

So the next time you hear a European say “Americans don’t know about the world,” just know that they only say that because they think Europe is the world.

Students from other cultures didn’t say things like that, they just openly admitted to knowing nothing about the world.  I had a Japanese student that didn’t know where Russia was.

Are Americans stupid? No. Or more accurately: yes, but only as stupid as everyone else.

These are generalizations, of course. I’m sure you may know a shy Latin American and a warm, out-going Chinese girl. But it’s impossible to talk about culture without generalizing. Also, it’s impossible to talk about culture without ruffling some feathers. These observations are just the way it is, as far as my experience has led me to believe. So ruffle away.

In the end, I think the most appropriate quote for American culture must be, “Time is money.” And I mean this in a good way. We don’t have patience for drawn-out formalities or pompous speech or cumbersome hierarchy. If it works, we like it. If not, we don’t give a damn.

You see it in everything, even down to our language. American English is direct. We’ve stripped away almost all structures of formality that would stall us from getting to the point. And I miss that directness when, even after a month, lesson planning with my Korean co-teacher still takes far longer than it should because she’d rather be polite than tell me what she really thinks. I miss that individuality and diversity when my waiter refuses to hold the spicy sauce because she thinks it tastes better with it.

Korea is a fantastic place full of beautiful and kind people, but over the last few years I’ve realized how much where I’m from is part of who I am.