Posted in Thoughts, Travel

My Korean Dating Disaster

“You said you need to lose weight, right?” my date said between slurps of noodles.

“I don’t think I said that.”

“Oh.” He put down his noodles and went back to the chicken, unbothered. “You said something about how Korean girls are so skinny.”

“Yes.” I poured myself more beer. “That doesn’t mean I need to lose weight.”

“Oh.” He turned back to his food without comment and I conspicuously checked my watch for the tenth time.

Things had started out well enough.

After a disastrous series of dates with a Korean doctor (with such a big language barrier between us that I couldn’t even break up with him without consulting a dictionary), I relished the opportunity to date a Korean-American and talk freely.

Jason (obviously not his real name) was on vacation in Korea for a month to visit his family. We’d talked about medical documentaries and hunting rifles, sushi and horror movies and everything in between. Over text, things had been going well.

When we met in Hongdae on a Friday night, everything seemed great. We played rock paper scissors to decide where to eat and picked a place based on the pretty lanterns in the window, which we both hit our heads on upon entering because we are TALL.

Things started to fall apart once we ordered food.

Jason spoke to the waiter, asking questions about the grill that neither of us really understood how to use, then thanked him and turned back to me.

“So, did you understand what he said?”

“Who, the waiter? No, not really.” I hadn’t really been listening. Why would I, when there was a fluent Korean speaker placing my order for me?

“Damn,” he said. “You need to study more. You’ve been here two months already.”

He was smirking, so I knew it was supposed to be a joke, but I didn’t find it funny. There was nothing funny about how I spent hundreds of hours making Korean flashcards and reviewing them every night. It wasn’t funny when I mapped out a detailed plan to communicate with a bank teller in Korean, but failed in the first two minutes of actually speaking to him and went home ashamed. It wasn’t funny that I tried so hard but still didn’t know how to refill my prescriptions, or where to buy size 10 shoes, or how to ask for salt for my fries.

“I study every day,” I said, amazed at how unaffected my voice sounded. My face probably wasn’t as pleasant, though. I’d always thought I had a poker face until my thesis advisor informed me that I very noticeably pursed my lips together when someone said something I disagreed with in class. “I mean, Korean is hard,” I said.

“No, it’s so easy,” Jason said, setting more meat on the grill.

“For you, it is,” I said, frowning. “You grew up speaking Korean.”

“No, it’s just easy.”

I looked out the window so I wouldn’t have to look at him anymore. A mosquito buzzed by my ear.

“You’re making me want to punch you in the face,” I admitted.

I wasn’t joking, but he laughed anyway.

“Kylie, I’m a black belt. I could kick your ass. I’m also an egalitarian, so I’ll hit girls.”

I wondered if that was supposed to impress me.

“You must say that to all your dates,” I said, snatching a piece of meat off the grill with more force than necessary.

I learned that Jason liked to talk a lot. I took the opportunity to eat most of the meat while he ranted, because I’d accepted the fact that I’d be paying for my half of the meal. Even if he tried to pay (spoiler: he didn’t), I knew I wouldn’t let him.

I tried my best to sound at least mildly interested in the conversation, because I’m the kind of person that doesn’t like to make other people feel awkward. I hate it when I share what I think is an interesting fact with an acquaintance and I’m met with stone cold silence. Something as simple as “Oh, really?” or “Wow, that’s interesting,” goes a long way in making me feel at ease.

But Jason was really testing my patience.

“Wolves eat people from the ass up,” Jason informed me.

“Oh. Really.”

“Mhmm. It’s the softest part of the body. Always remember that.”

“Oh. You don’t say.”

“Yep. The ass is the softest part of the body.”

“Yes, that is what you said.”

“I’m tipsy,” he announced.

“Really?” Korean beer was basically flavored water. I’d had more to drink than him and I was still completely sober.

“Yes, so I’m going to find the bathroom because my dick is about to fall off.”

I graciously assumed he’d meant to add “because I have to pee” to the end of his sentence but decided not to press it.

I watched people walking by just outside the window and imagined I was with them, definitely having more fun than I was with Jason. When he came back, I was still looking out the window.

“Their haircuts are all the same,” he said, sliding into his seat and gesturing to the people on the other side of the glass. “It’s disgusting.”

“It’s a small country,” I said. “It makes sense that one trend is so pervasive.”

He shook his head. “It’s gross.”

I sighed and turned back to the window. Two girls were taking a selfie by the restaurant, probably because of the pretty lanterns that had drawn us there in the first place.”

“I’m gonna throw up,” Jason announced.

I spun back around to face him. “Wait, seriously?”

“Yes. They’re disgusting.”

I frowned. “Who?”

He pointed at the girls taking pictures by the window.

I scowled. “That’s not what ‘seriously’ means. And they’re just taking pictures.”

“But it’s so fake,” he said, still grimacing. “I only like candid shots.” He glanced over his shoulder at the girls who had yet to move, then groaned and turned away again.

“You’re a very negative person,” I said before I could stop myself.

He blinked, and something flashed in his eyes like he’d started to realize that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t impressing me at all.

“I’m just a realist,” he said. “I tell the truth.”

“You mean you say your opinion.”

“That’s the truth.”

“So you just walk around disgusted with everybody and everything, always angry?”

“Yep!” he said proudly.

“That sounds miserable.”

He shrugged, stabbing a piece of chicken with his chopsticks.

“We should get going,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed. “I just need to finish this meat.”

I was naive in thinking he meant the meat on his plate. He meant the rest of the meat on the grill, because we were paying for it and it “couldn’t go to waste.” He continued to share unsolicited stories about his travels for another hour before he had to use the bathroom again.

“Can you ask for the check so it gets here by the time I’m back?” he said.

By this point, I was blatantly checking my phone for the tenth time to not-so-subtly show him that I wanted to go.

“Why don’t you ask for it,” I said. “You’re the one who can speak Korean, aren’t you.”

He nodded understandingly and went to go get the check. I didn’t tell him that I’d asked for the check dozens of times in Korean restaurants.

The waiter gave me the bill and I slapped money on the table for my half, not willing to let him pay for me even if he’d offered (he didn’t). For a moment, I seriously considered paying and leaving before he got back from the bathroom, but ultimately decided I wasn’t that level of evil.

We finally left the restaurant, but we had to take the same train for a few stops, so we walked to the station together.

“Say something in Korean,” he said as we boarded the train.

“No.”

“Come on,” he said, elbowing me.

I sighed and mentally scrolled through the sentences I’d memorized for my last Korean dictation exercise.

“당신 같은 사람은 이 세상에 없어요.”

It means: “There’s no one like you in this world.” This can be romantic, if you smile and bat your eyelashes when you say it. It can also mean “You’re really fucking weird” if you say it with a completely straight face, devoid of emotion. Guess which one I did.

He laughed and said something in Korean that I didn’t catch.

“What?”

“I said ‘there must be a few people like me.’ See, you need to practice. It was a simple response.”

“You don’t know me well enough to say that to me,” I said.

He stopped smiling.

My stop came mercifully soon. I was ready to run out of the train, but he opened his arms for a hug, which I reciprocated with the enthusiasm of a wet sock, grateful that at least he didn’t try to kiss me or ask me to go home with him.

I transferred to another train line and stood staring at my boots, suddenly feeling profoundly sad.

Part of it was that I’d wasted my time and money. But a bigger part of it was that I worried he was right about my Korean. After all, my co-teachers who always complimented and encouraged my efforts weren’t exactly unbiased — they loved me and fretted over me like a little sister. But this stranger clearly had no problem telling me the truth.

Just as I was fishing my headphones out of my bag, my phone vibrated with a message from Jason.

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I laughed, startling the old man sitting next to me.

It must have been so easy to go through life with an attitude like Jason’s. To think, “I had a good time, so that’s what matters” and damn the consequences for the people around you, who cares how you made them feel? They just can’t handle the truth.

I stared at my phone for the rest of the train ride, then tucked it into my pocket for the walk to my apartment, kicked off my shoes and fell into bed, hugging my stuffed lion.

It was hard to be mad at Jason when deep down, I knew that he hadn’t meant to make me feel this way. He was just socially inept and had poor taste in jokes.

I rolled over in bed and looked at the broken piece of wood that I’d leaned up against the window. During orientation, we’d written what we wanted to accomplish in Korean on pieces of wood, then broken them during a taekwondo class.

be fearless

 

My piece of wood now sat in my room as a reminder of why I was here — to learn and to keep learning even when it was hard, even when I was scared.

I took out my phone and stared at Jason’s text for a few more minutes.

My first instinct was to type: “I know, no worries :)” because at least I could pretend to be happy through text if I couldn’t in person. It wasn’t like I was going to see him again, so it didn’t matter.

But then I decided I was done pretending for the night.

Instead, I typed:

ben screenshot2

I set my phone down on my bed and stared up at the ceiling. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I was probably going to die as an old woman not in the arms of a man but surrounded by ragdoll cats and welsh corgis. And, at this point in my life, that sounds like a pretty awesome way to go.

~~~~~~~~



Bonus: Versatile Blogger Award & 7 facts about me

I’ve been nominated by the lovely Carol (Born into the Wild Life) for the Versatile Blogger Award, which is less of an award and more of a way to get to know other bloggers. I haven’t dedicated a separate post to this because I try to keep my blog centered around travel and writing, but I do think this is a fun idea to get to know both me and other bloggers. The rules are as follows:

  1. If you’ve been nominated, you have been awarded the Versatile Blogger Award (lol, like I said, not really an award)
  2. Thank the person who nominated you for this award (thank you Carol! :D)
  3. Include a link to their blog (heeeeeeeere)
  4. Nominate 15 other blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly (see below)
  5. Tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself (also see below)

I have to be honest and say that I don’t really follow many bloggers besides the really well-known ones (who I know will never see this post), so I can really only nominate 4 people. But hey, quality over quantity, right?

Born into the Wild Life — the lovely Carol, who writes wonderfully about her very relatable life experiences, often about being half-white-half-asian like me 🙂

The Landscape is Always Changing (Stephanie Yu) – reflections and insights on life that are practically poetry because they’re so beautifully written.

The Empathetic Activist — discussions of mental health and self-harm

Babs Handmade Creations — adorable crochet animals that I love to admire

And for the last part…

7 facts about me:

  1. I love escape rooms and I’m decently good at them:

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2. I’m tall. Like 5.9-5.10″ (depending on who’s asking)

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3. Once, I managed to get red wine on my ceiling (don’t ask)

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4. I love cereal and eat it for dessert most nights. I have received cereal as a Christmas present. The day I went to a cereal cafe in London was maybe the best day of my life. Brand-name cereals are about $7/box in Korea, which makes me incredibly sad.

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5. I also love tea, which is probably why my teeth are never the right color.

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6. I taught English to a group of Tibetan monks at my university. I’m not sure why anyone trusted me to do this unsupervised (this was before I had any teaching credentials), but it was an amazing experience.

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7. I keep many toys on my desk at work (for the kids, I swear). My favorite is a stuffed lamb that I use for games. Usually, the kids pass him around to music and whoever has it when the music stops has to answer a question. The lamb inevitably gets thrown around the room. He used to be white but now is sort of gray. I creatively named him Snowball, but the kids call him 양양이 (yangyangi) which is like “lamb lamb”

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Posted in Thoughts, Travel

English Textbooks in Korea are Hilarious

I spend a lot of my lesson-planning time laughing at the English textbook that I’m required to teach from. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to explain to my students that the textbook is wrong, so please ignore every single picture and video that teaches you this very incorrect English.

I’m not sharing this to make fun of Korean people’s attempts at speaking English (God knows I could never make a Korean textbook). English is an incredibly hard language and even trying to learn it is admirable.

HOWEVER

Publishing an English textbook without having a native English speaker give it a quick read-through is doing a huge disservice to Korean students. There are so many mistakes that could have been avoided by paying literally any native speaker, educated or not, to quickly read and approve each chapter. It’s clear that the publishers didn’t take the time to do this, and as a result there are tons of mistakes, awkward phrasing, and just plain weird choices in topics (ie things that English speakers rarely ever have to say). As cool as it is to hire native English teachers like me, improving the textbooks would probably help students a lot more.

(Not all of these pictures are examples of irresponsibly bad English. Some of them are just funny)

Okay, without further ado, let’s take a look at Chapter 1 of the 6th grade textbook. This chapter is called “What Grade are you in?”

textbook 1Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that nobody would say “the” here, WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS KID’S HEAD?

Okay forget that. Let’s go to the library with Jason. The librarian says “Can I help you?” and Jason says:

textbook 2

That’s not the right verb, but okay.

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Hi, Jason.

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… How do you spell “Jason”? Really?

But Jason gets his library card (he makes a peace sign in the photo that the librarian takes for his ID, which is definitely something white people do) and moves on with his life. But, because this book likes to keep you on your toes, in the next chapter, Jason goes to the nurse with a headache.

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She takes his temperature with this ray gun, which she taps against his eye for 0.5 seconds, before announcing that he has a fever.

textbook 10Then she offers him a single, mysterious pill in her bare hand.

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WHY IS HE HOLDING THE PILL LIKE THAT?!

But fear not, Jason recovers and tries to woo Sora, his lady-friend, by picking up a frog in the park and showing it to her:

textbook 21

Sora takes the frog while their creepy friends watch from the bottom left corner.

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Then the frog jumps out of Sora’s hand and they make this facial expression:

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Sora then laments:

textbook 24

…You did what?

(More importantly, how did this mistake make it into a published book?)

Jason should probably be worried, because Sora has an internet friend from America:

textbook 30

I actually had to look this word up. Apparently, it’s a gathering of scouts. Upon realizing this, I remembered going to jamborees when I was a girl scout. Except, there aren’t coed scouting groups in America as far as I know. So… how did Sora meet a boy at a girl scout event?

THE PLOT THICKENS.

We’ll revisit Jason and Sora later. For now, let’s take a look at the 5th grade book:

textbook 5

As an American, I can testify that this drawing is an accurate representation of how American people dress. We also greet each other with “Hello, friends!” so A+ English here.

In the same chapter, the authors take a stab at teaching Korean kids about nicknames in English:

textbook 6

I think they missed the mark a little.

textbook 7This is still not how nicknames work.

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Also not how nicknames work, but I’m starting to see a pattern here.

A few chapters later, these two kids show up next to a river, apparently with no plans.

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But this is a girl who knows what she wants in life:

textbook 14

…This is an odd thing for a child to say.

textbook 13

Does anyone actually want to do this? These writers are awfully idealistic.

The other vocabulary for this chapter includes:

textbook 15

I cannot think of a time in my life when someone has asked me if I wanted to feed the pigs. I am beginning to suspect that this book is meant for kids living in rural Korea because this vocabulary is not particularly helpful for kids in Seoul.

But it’s okay! In later chapters, the kids learn more relevant things, like furniture and rooms:

textbook 16

*clenching my teeth and ignoring the awkward use of “it is” instead of “it’s”*

textbook 17

… There’s really nothing I can say about this one.

Let’s move onto some rapid-fire slides that I like to call “This is not how this phrase works in English.” Exhibit A:

textbook 18

Who even says “What a surprise!” anymore, and if they do, this certainly isn’t the way to use it.

Exhibit B:

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“Not at all” comes after someone says “Thank you,” not “I’m sorry.” No points for research here.

Exhibit C:

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The book, for some reason, randomly and aggressively asserts that you have to say “COME home” and not “GO home,” even when talking to people who don’t live in your house. This is especially confusing to me considering that “go” and “come” verbs work the same in Korean as they do in English.

Let’s take a break from raging about poor English research and visit our friend Ming, who is coming home from school:

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Nice of you to ask, Ming.

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… Stereotypes, much?

It’s worth noting that in a previous chapter, when Ming tells her dad she has a cold, he simply responds: “That’s too bad” and the scene ends.

But, even if the book has stereotypes, at least it has inspirational cartoons:

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I never knew it was that easy!!!

But wait!

Let’s not forget about Sora. Without Jason’s knowledge, she’s met up with Eddie after class:

textbook 28

Do you mean like a school dance? Are you trying to ask Sora out?

Apparently he is, because he then tries to woo Sora by “showing her some moves”:

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He apparently splits his butt in half while doing so.

Whatever, Sora seems to like it.

Posted in Thoughts, Travel

Being Half Asian in Korea

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Half-Asians have a spider sense for other half-Asians.

It’s hard to describe what, exactly, makes someone “look” half-Asian. I’ve met halfies with pale skin and dark skin, straight black hair and curly light-brown hair and everything in between. Yet, somehow, we can always find each other in a crowd.

That’s why, when a skinny girl with long brown hair sat in the first row of my third-grade English class during my first week as a teacher, I knew she was like me.

I did my introduction lesson, explaining that I was half American and half Chinese (a gross oversimplification, but easy enough for the kids to grasp). In every class, without fail, this part of my presentation was met with astonished interjections and expressions of disbelief (“OOOAAAAA, TEACHER!!! SO COOL!!”) When I explained that I was American, the girl in the front nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement.

At the end of the class, she ran up to me.

“My dad’s American too!” she said in perfect albeit high-pitched English.

“That’s so cool!” I said, bending down slightly so I was at her height. It occurred to me that this little girl was the only person in school I didn’t have to water-down my words for. My Korean co-teachers often went on about how clearly I spoke English (“Just like our textbook CD’s!”) and I wondered if they knew that that wasn’t how I normally spoke.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“My name’s Hailey,” she said.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Hailey,” I said. She smiled and waved, then bowed for good measure, before running off to her friends.

She was the only biracial kid I’d seen in the school. She seemed well-adjusted enough, talking easily in Korean with the other kids.

I realized that I might have been the only other half-white-half-Asian person she’d ever met. This seemed even more likely when my co-teacher came up to me a few days later and said:

“Hailey is always very excited to see you. I can understand her feelings.”

“I’m excited too,” I said, sweating a little when I realized that I’d inevitably and involuntarily become somewhat of a biracial role model for this girl. I just wasn’t sure if:

a) she needed one in the first place

b) I was good enough to be the kind of role model she deserved

But, while I still had a lot to figure out, I’d definitely learned a thing or two about being half-white-half-Asian in my 22 (23 in Korean age, kill me now) years of life. Now that I was in Korea, I was gaining a more nuanced understanding of my race every day.

Top Things I’ve Learned About Being Biracial in Korea

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  1. People don’t stare at you

“People will stare at you,” they told me. My Korean teacher told me. My interviewer told me. My friends told me.

Except… no one really does.

I live in an area of Seoul with very few foreigners, so foreigners are kind of like unicorns. But most of the time it seems like the Koreans here could not care less about my foreigner status.

Even when I twisted my ankle while trying to cross a stream and nearly tumbled three feet down into wet water and rocks, letting out an undignified squeal, none of the Koreans around me so much as glanced in my direction.

After years of being told how white I looked by other Asian people, this is still surprising to me. I hadn’t been worried, because I’d never really fit in anywhere my entire life. People in America never actually stared at me in the street, but I’d heard more than once at school from a near-stranger “Oh, I’ve seen you around campus. You look very… unique.”

I know that I do. Even among half-white-half-Asian people, there’s no one who really looks like me. But I got over my angst about that somewhere in high school. It’s a part of my reality and my identity. Being different is nothing new for me, so I was ready for the stares.

But they never came.

Maybe I look “Asian enough” from a distance. Whatever it is, I’ll admit that, at times, it’s nice to blend in.

2. People overestimate your Asian-ness

It was 7pm on a Tuesday. My friends and I had stopped by a bakery that smelled like literal heaven. I was with two people: Veronica (who is white) and Nadea (who is black). None of us are particularly good at Korean. I have two semesters of college Korean under my belt, while Nadea has a year of self-study and Veronica has been diligently working through the Korean alphabet for a month.

Nadea approached the vendor and tried to ask if the bread on the menu was sweet.

The woman blinked slowly and stared at Nadea, expression unchanged. The classic Korean I-don’t-know-what-you’re-saying-so-I-will-stare-at-you-until-you-do-something-else look. Nadea repeated the question with slightly different wording, only to be met with the same look.

Then, the woman turned to me.

What is she saying?” she asked me in Korean.

I froze. “Ummm… she…. uhhh….”

I fumbled for words, making another attempt at phrasing Nadea’s question differently, only to be hit with more questions in Korean, still directed at me. I wanted to scream “What makes you think I have any idea how to say this?!

We got the bread eventually. Nadea was satisfied. I was a bit flustered.

3. People Underestimate Your Asian-ness

“You’re very good at using chopsticks,” my co-teacher, Seung-Jin, said at lunch. “Did you practice a lot?”

“Umm…” I covered my mouth and finished chewing my jap-chae, “I didn’t really… practice?”

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“So you tried for the first time in Korea?” she gasped.

“No, I mean, I used chopsticks in America.”

“REALLY?”

“I mean, not for like, pizza and stuff. Just for Asian food. My grandmother taught me.”

I remembered sitting at a table in my grandmother’s house with a cup of dried beans on my left and an empty cup on my life. My grandmother put a pair of chopsticks in front of me and told me to move all the beans to the empty cup. While excruciating at the time, I’m forever grateful to her for this lesson.

“My grandmother is Japanese,” I reminded Seung-Jin.

“Ah, right,” she said. Because it was easy to forget that about me, I supposed.

4. People Make Weird Comments About You

 

I don’t mean offensive, I just mean… weird. Such as:

Is that your real hair color? Umm, yes. But it’s so dark. … I’m sorry about that?

Are you wearing colored lenses? No. Your eyes are so interesting. They’re brown. Yes yes but a lighter brown.

My favorite comment came when sitting at a restaurant with a Korean guy who quickly made his way to my “blocked numbers” list:

“Your nose is beautiful,” he said.

I paused before the ddeokbokki on my chopsticks could reach my lips.

“My nose?” I said, conscious of how oily my nose probably was and uncomfortable with him scrutinizing it so intensely.

“Yes. Many Korean people want your nose.”

“It’s my mom’s nose,” I said slowly. “It’s a Chinese nose.” Had he really never seen a Chinese person before? Maybe it was different seeing the nose slapped on a face with “white” bone structure.

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“It’s beautiful,” he said. He brought up my nose seemingly every ten minutes. I started to wonder if he had a nose fetish. I didn’t meet him again.

5. Some People Will Never Accept You

“And who knows a word starting with ‘D’?” I asked my third-graders.

Hailey raised her hand and stood up. “Doll,” she said confidently.

The boys behind her started snickering. “Oeguk-in” they said. Foreigner.

She looked down at the floor and said nothing. My co-teacher looked at the boys disapprovingly and handed them extra sheets of homework as punishment. For the next few minutes, Hailey stared at her desk, shoulders hunched over.

I wanted to yell at the boys, to tell them that Hailey was just as Korean as them, that insulting her was insulting me.

More than that, I wanted to tell Hailey not to listen to them.

I wanted to tell her that for years, wherever I went, people on both sides of my heritage also told me I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t welcome. I wanted to tell her that I’d spent nights crying because I thought I’d never be “enough” for anyone.

But I’d learned, day by day, that no one else could tell me who I was. I’d learned that being an outsider is a privilege because belonging nowhere is also belonging everywhere once you stop caring what people think. I’d learned how special and beautiful I was, how blessed I was to be part of two worlds, to be unique, to have this kind of empathy for outcasts and willingness to explore new cultures.

But, in the end I said nothing.

It wasn’t my place to discipline the kids in a language I could barely speak, and I couldn’t embarrass Hailey in the middle of class.

Class ended and the kids ran out. I saw Hailey eating lunch with her friends, laughing and looking like nothing had happened.

But I knew that she hadn’t forgotten what the boys said and she probably never would. I knew that she’d save every one of those comments somewhere dark and deep inside of her. I knew that her life was going to get harder as she got older, but I also knew that she would be okay, that she would love herself and find people who loved her not as Korean or American but as Hailey.

I hoped that one day, with or without me in her life, she would understand the words I never said.

Posted in Thoughts, Travel

How Can You Make Friends in Your Second Language?

Very late PSA: I’m going to Seoul as an English teacher with EPIK next week…

…and sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make friends with my elementary Korean skills.

After all, so much of our personalities is conveyed through our words. As a writer and English teacher, the very foundation of my career is diction and syntax. It’s a skill that I’ve honed for my entire life and a tool that I use to convey the many shades of Kylie that I have to offer.

A HUGE part of my personality is my ability make jokes or dish out sass like free chicken samples at a food court Panda Express.

I can make people laugh in other languages, too.

Just… not always for the reasons I intended.

FLASHBACK: Kylie’s Last Korean Lesson (via Skype)

Kylie: So I tried to make Korean seaweed soup for my dad, but it came out really watery. I went to H-Mart and there were too many kinds of seaweed so I just picked one. (Shows teacher a picture of the seaweed aisle at H-Mart).

Teacher: (begins laughing hysterically)

Kylie: … What?

Teacher: (continues to laugh hysterically)

Kylie: WHAT, teacher, WHAT?

Teacher: THAT’S the seaweed you used?!

Kylie: It’s wrong?

Teacher: (slams forehead on desk, still laughing hysterically)

Kylie: YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHICH ONE I PICKED. HOW DO YOU KNOW ALL OF THESE ARE WRONG?

Teacher: (starts crying laughing)

Kylie: TEACHER PLZ

Teacher: Kylie-Ssi, those are seaweed sheets for kimbap and rice. (Pastes two pictures into our shared google doc)

What I used:

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What I was supposed to use:

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Kylie: …. no wonder it came out looking like sludge.

Teacher: (dies of laughter. RIP I need a new Korean teacher now)

END FLASHBACK

… My point is, I am unable to express a vital part of my personality in Korean, at least for now.

So, up until I become fluent in Korean, will the only people in Korea who truly know me for who I am be English-speaking foreigners? Will everyone else only know a watered-down, baby-talking version of me?

At first, my answer was a resounding “YES” that motivated me to study Korean even harder.

But then, I thought about the interactions I’ve had with my students and foreign friends of different English-language abilities.

There’s Eugenia, in my beginner English class. I don’t know her nuanced thoughts on American politics and race relations, but I know that she’s punctual and dedicated despite being the lowest-level student in the class. I know that she’s got a funny side, because she saw me on the train after class and sat across from me, staring aggressively, until we finally made eye contact and laughed together when I jumped in surprise.

Then there’s Jonathan, another beginner student who can’t really pronounce the letters “s” or “z” but sits at his table 5 minutes before class and plays scales on a black violin.

Are my interactions with these people less meaningful because they’re limited by language? Are they less “real” than the interactions I have with native English speakers? Are the things we share with each other actually watered-down and inauthentic?

I think that perhaps, when we don’t speak each others’ languages as well as we might like to, what we see is not a lesser part of each other but a different part. Perhaps we see a facet of someone that we might have overlooked when distracted by all the vacuous words so often tossed in the air. There’s a sort of innocence, or maybe honesty, to paring down our words to the bare minimum. There’s nothing to hide behind.

 

 

Posted in Thoughts

I graduated hooray

A wild Kylie crawls out from a cave, even paler than before (which is really a feat, since she was already a bed sheet, so just imagine that her skin is literally translucent), hair untamed (not that hard to imagine), clothes tattered and squinting in the blinding sun, holding something triumphantly above her head, baby-Simba-the-opening-scene-of-the-Lion-King style. The object in her arms is blinding white, reflecting the sun. Upon closer inspection it appears to be… 320 typed pages?

“I FINISHED IT!” she screams, voice weak from a year of disuse. “I FINISHED MY THESIS!”

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My dear friend Joanie and I at our honors ceremony where they rewarded us with a few yards of pretty rope for sacrificing a year of our lives to our theses.

(clears throat)

So that’s where I’ve been the past year.

One of the perks of being a creative writing major is that your thesis gets to be a creative project instead of a year-long analysis of Renaissance literature or a detailed report of your experiments poking C. elegans under a microscope. My thesis was a fantasy novel about a boy who takes a train to purgatory. I’m in the process of querying agents who will potentially try to help me publish it.

Here’s actual footage of agents rejecting me:

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Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t spend ALL of my free time writing. You can really only write for so many hours in a day before you forget how to speak English. The thing about creative writing is that, as fun as it can be, it’s mentally draining. I didn’t exactly curl up in bed after a long day of class and say “You know what I feel like doing? Winding down by cranking out 3,000 words of an emotionally-charged murder scene which I will have to research extensively.” So I made time for other things. You know, for inspiration.

I started the year by flying into Atlanta early for International Student Orientation, where I hung out with my amazing and brilliant freshmen mentees.

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Not pictured: my other wonderful mentee, Natalia.

I did lots of fun things with my friends, including but not limited to: attending Braves games, riding tandem bikes in the rain, eating too much Korean BBQ, playing tipsy twister, and hosting a Halloween party.

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Halloween at The Castle of Dreams, feat. Snow White, a minion, Minnie Mouse, and a gross tub that we used to bob for apples.

My fantastic roommates, Giang and Sarah, made our apartment (otherwise known as the Castle of Dreams) feel like home. IMG_3474

For spring break, my friends and I drove to Gatlinberg, TN, for some hiking and general tomfoolery. This was our destination mostly because I informed them that I am an actual vampire who hates the beach, so we opted out of the more “traditional” spring break cities because I have the best friends ever.

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Giang I stole your picture and I’m not sorry

I can honestly say my senior year was my favorite year of college. This was mostly because I focused my energy on things that truly mattered to me and people who care about me. But now…

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IT’S OVER.

Except not really.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my travels, it’s that real love doesn’t fade across time zones. People who are truly meant to be in your life will always be there, no matter how far away you are, what sort of trauma you’re trudging through, or what forces are trying desperately to pull you apart.

It sucks not having hugs on demand, but I never lose sight of how lucky I am to have people who love me all around the world. My time at Emory isn’t “over” because I’ll carry every part of it with me every day. Graduation is not an endpoint for me, because I believe that nothing ever truly ends.

… Did you like that last bit?

(Yes, Kylie, that was lovely)

Well great! Because that’s actually a quote from a story of mine that is being published in a few short weeks!

(I’m really good at subtle transitions, as you can see)

One of my short stories is being published in the spring edition of The Puritan, an online literary magazine based in Toronto. This is exciting because it’s the first time anyone has PAID ME for my writing. I’ll send out another blog post when that gets published soon, but I wanted to get this out first rather than writing one SUPER MEGA BLOG POST ABOUT EVERYTHING.

Another thing I did this year is a lengthy analysis of Mulan (yes, the Disney film) for my English class. If you’re interested in what Mulan has to do with racism, feminism, orientalism, etc. then take a look!

Until next time!

xxx

-K

Posted in Thoughts

How Youtubers Are Buying the Best Seller List

Zoe Sugg

Zoe Sugg, an English internet celebrity known for her makeup tutorials and funfetti cupcake recipes, published her debut novel, Girl Online, in 2014. The YA romance discussing cyber-bullying and mental health sold 78,109 copies in its first week on shelves, more than any debut novel since 1998. Sugg’s name appeared on both the New York Times and Amazon Best Seller Lists. The only problem?

Sugg didn’t write the book, and the whole world knows it. 

Sugg hired a ghost writer named Siobhan Curham to write Girl Online, and hid this information until after publication. Her novel’s success was practically guaranteed by Sugg’s platform of 5,000,000 (now 9,000,000) subscribers to her Youtube channel.

Sugg is not the first and certainly not the only celebrity who knows their name will sell products and capitalizes on the loyalty of their fan base. But as a writer, I take issue with the practice of purchasing a spot on the Best Seller List, a goal that some people spend their lives trying to achieve.

When the internet first caught wind of the fact that Sugg didn’t write her novel independently, she tweeted: “Everyone needs help when they try something new. The story and the characters of Girl Online are mine.”

And there lies the fatal flaw in the logic of every celebrity who needs some “help” writing their book: the ideas are mine, so it doesn’t matter if I have some help with the writing part.

story ideas blog

On the left is a note on my phone of the many story ideas I have throughout the day. Some of these have panned out into great stories, some were fleeting ideas that I haven’t touched since.

I have 23 of these notes saved on my phone.

In short, I have a lot of ideas.

And I’m not afraid to post them on the internet because I know that these ideas by themselves are worthless. Coming up with ideas is the easy part. I’d even say it’s the fun part of writing. Seeing a story play out like a movie in your head, dreaming of who plays the main character in the film adaptation, fantasizing about the gray rain and flickering streetlights in the dramatic fight scene at the climax of the story…

None of those things make you a writer.

What makes you a writer is the painstaking process of translating those cinematic ideas onto paper in a way that makes your readers see the same look of despair in your main character’s eyes when his brother dies, and feel the wet pavement scrape his knees when he falls to the ground. It’s the task of describing the indescribable, trying to put words to things that you know transcend all words.

What makes you a writer is spending all summer on a draft, staying up until 2am and typing while your roommate sleeps, then burning the draft and starting from scratch the next day.

What makes you a writer is the influx of rejection letters from publishers and the will to keep sending out your stories to be spit on and tossed back to you in crumpled paper balls. It’s the waiting game that gnaws at your stomach until you can’t eat anymore because you’re always waiting for a letter in the mail, an email, constantly refreshing to see if your submission status has changed from “Received” to “In-Progress” to “Rejected.”

Whether Sugg’s ghostwriter wanted acknowledgment for her work or not is irrelevant. Curham’s distaste for fame doesn’t make Sugg any more deserving of the money she made or her spot on the Best Seller List. It only means that two people were complacent in an inherently deceptive money-making scheme.

I’m not arguing that Sugg is a bad person. In fact, using her fame to teach young people about bullying and mental health is admirable. She deserves every single one of her near-9-million Youtube subscribers because her videos are fun, entertaining, and uplifting. Even I subscribe to her and watch her videos. I appreciate all that she’s done to break down the stigma surrounding panic attacks and anxiety, and how her bright disposition never fails to make me smile.

But I know that her fame doesn’t make her flawless, and even though I like her, I will not blindly defend her. 

Being famous for one skill does not entitle you to fame in all other areas of life, and does not make it moral for you to bypass all the hard work that someone without your fame would have to put in to get the same results.

Fame is self-perpetuating, after all. Take J.K. Rowling for example. Rowling’s novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith in 2013, selling only 1,500 copies in the U.K. and 1,800 in the U.S.

Then an anonymous twitter user outed Rowling, and The Cuckoo’s Calling shot to #1 on Amazon Kindle, the Apple Bookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Nook Best Seller Lists once people realized the Galbraith was actually Rowling.

My point is that once you’re famous, that fame is inescapable. Any product with Sugg’s name on it will sell. That doesn’t make it immoral for her to benefit from her fame by pursuing new projects, but it becomes immoral when she thinks that her fame is an excuse to skip the hard work that comes with writing a novel because she can afford to pay someone to do it for her

Though her intentions may have been good, by taking credit for a novel which is not hers, Sugg teaches her young audience that if you’re not good at something, paying someone else to do it for you and pretending that you did it yourself is the next best thing. She teaches them that skills such as writing, which people spend lifetimes trying to master, can be outsourced without consequence, and that having good ideas is enough to succeed, never mind having the drive to actually execute them.

 The sequel to Girl Online will be released in October this year, supposedly without the help of a ghost writer. Rather, Sugg says that her editor, Amy Alward, has been coming to her house “every week for the past four months… we essentially spend the day bashing heads and writing the book together.”

It’s a step in the right direction, though I can’t help but think of all the aspiring writers who don’t have the luxury of an in-house editor and guaranteed book deal. Any other writer would be forced to write their novel independently, and if a publisher didn’t like it, they’d receive a terse rejection email and that would be the end of it. No editor holding their hand, correcting their grammar, offering chapter-by-chapter critiques. The same process that every other writer in the world has to suffer through. Minus, of course, the built-in platform of devoted readers waiting for a sequel to a beloved book that their favorite “author” didn’t actually write.

Now Zoe Sugg’s younger brother and fellow Youtube celebrity Joe Sugg is releasing a graphic novel in September titled Username: Evie.

Unlike his sister, Sugg readily admits that he did not work independently on the novel, crediting a team of 4 other people who worked on writing, lettering, colors, and drawing. So what did Sugg himself do? The “story/characters,” he says.

As you may have guessed,” Sugg continues on Twitter, “Graphic novels aren’t a one man job. If I did it all on my own it wouldn’t be out until 2070 and would be rubbish.”

If that’s the case, Joe, then why is your name the only one on the cover? And for the love of God, stop referring to it as “my book.”



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Email: leebaker.kylie@gmail.com

Twitter: @KylieYamashiro

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Posted in Thoughts

What is your dream?

Yesterday I came back to work, ready to unpack, sweep, and possibly spray another round of bedbug spray over my suite before the students came back on the bus, only to find that my keys were locked in the office and no one could let me in. I sat by the front desk and started reading (I’m halfway through I Know This Much is True) when a coworker sat next to me and said, “Kylie, what is your dream?”

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Traveling is also pretty high up there on the list of dreams

I think writers, by definition, are big dreamers. I spend more time inside my imagination than outside of it. I’m also a massive and unapologetic optimist, so I can only imagine the brightest future for myself and everyone around me.

But I also know that life never goes exactly how you expect it to. As much as I like to make lists and plan everything down to the last nanosecond, I also know that learning to accept surprises gracefully and without (too much) complaining is the only way to be happy. So my dream isn’t as specific as living in California with a K-Pop star husband and a permanent spot on the New York Times Best Seller List.

“My dream is to be happy,” I said, “and to solve more problems in the world than I create.”

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The latter part of my dream is a quote from a Vlogbrothers video that I can’t seem to find, but I think this should be everyone’s goal in life.

I remember an episode of Arthur from when I was little where Binky Barnes wished that he’d never been born, so one fairy-godmother-like character showed him what the world would be like if he didn’t exist. She showed him all the trash in the park that was blowing around in the wind because he was always the one who picked it up. I’m sure there were much more profound differences in the non-Binky-Barnes world, but I can’t remember them. But the message stuck with me:

Above all else, I hope to live and impact the people around me in such a way that, had I never been born, the world would be a slightly darker place.

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If I can find a way to do that, I’ll call my life a success.

Posted in Thoughts

What if I never “make it”?

Courtesy of flickr user Christian Haugen
Courtesy of flickr user Christian Haugen

Imagine that you’re 20 years old, starting your third year of college as a Creative Writing Major, and justifying your $30,000 loans to your parents with daydreams of making the New York Times Best Seller List.

You know the statistics. You know that most books never sell more than 200 copies. Still, you imagine the day when your book sales explode and suddenly CNN wants to interview you, Steven Spielberg wants to option the movie rights, and the royalties not only save you from a lifetime of debt but let you buy your own bigger-than-a-closet apartment in New York and a house on Cape Cod for your parents. Even when the guy who took you to the symphony last week won’t answer his phone, even when you take your Chinese final with a 102 degree fever, you exude hope from this beautiful, foolish aspiration.

After all, you’re still young. You have at least 50 years of good mental capacity left, and odds are you can crank out some half-decent prose by then. You’ve published a story or two in some magazines with a decent circulation. You have a pretty face that can probably sell books. Teachers praise your work. Rejection letters hardly phase you because you know still have so much time.

But in the back of your mind, there’s still a massive storm cloud hovering at the fringes: what if you don’t make it? What if one day you wake up and you’re 40, only a handful of people have ever read your work, suddenly you’re no longer young and time seems a lot less infinite than it did before?

You look at disgruntled semi-famous writers in their late 30’s and feel sorry for them but keep your distance because their bitter attitudes clash with your shiny optimism. But deep down you know that in 20 years you might be just like them, and statistically, you probably will be. Dreams of becoming famous both drive you and haunt you. The foundation of your happiness is an irrational hope, and you wonder what will happen when it’s gone.

But you’re determined. You write stories every night and hate them by morning, then re-write them, re-name all the characters, change the setting from rural Japan to a New York train car and find that you still hate it. A few stories survive, and you send them to every magazine you can find, using all your ink to print manuscripts, all your saliva to seal envelopes. You drop them in the mailbox and begin the game of waiting six months for someone in a tiny office across the country to mail you back a quick and impersonal rejection slip on a half a sheet of paper.

But you’re still determined not to fail, so you research how books become best-sellers. Every website tells you that a platform is paramount, so you start a blog. The blatant self-promotion makes you cringe because like most writers, you’re a bookworm, and like most bookworms, you prefer to stay in the shadows. You wanted to sell your writing, not yourself, but you now understand that the publishing world is a business, and you are a brand.

You’ve maxed out on federal student loans, so you apply for private ones. By the time you graduate, you’ll owe well over $50,000. You consider teaching English abroad, even though you hate teaching, but it’s all you’re qualified for. You research part-time jobs to see what will pay the most and give you the most time to write. Any job is just a way to kill time until your debut novel comes out and pays off all your loans.

Your parents support you, but you can tell from the way they look at you that they’re worried. They don’t want you to be like them, arguing over which bills to pay late while their daughter sits at the top of the stairs and listens. They don’t want you to have a child who worries if she can afford to go back to college for her senior year. They say they just want you to be happy, but you know it’s hard to be happy when you might lose your house at any moment.

You stay up until 3:00am writing your novel because it’s the only consistent source of happiness in your life, but every day it seems more pointless. You’re better off selling short stories or making Youtube videos to build your platform. No one will read your first novel because no one knows you, and no one cares who you are.

You decide to become a translator. You even get the “Declaration of Major” form from the Chinese department and check the blasphemous box saying “Cancel My Previous Major.” You’ll switch legal documents from Spanish to English to Chinese and back again, making enough to pay off your loans in 5 years instead of 15. You think of your post-graduation apartment, this time not the size of a large port-o-potty but a small bedroom with hot water and free parking. You imagine buying your first car and taking vacations to Thailand, drinking Mango juice on the beach.

You also imagine your characters, like insects trapped in amber, frozen in their journeys on the day you closed the word document and never opened it again. You see yourself at age 30, looking away as you pass every book store, hating the author’s names printed on the dust jackets. Even though you stop writing, your novel plays out like a movie in your dreams. Storm clouds still rumble in your brain, but this time the question is different. They no longer ask, “What if you don’t make it?” but “What if you do?

You throw the “Declaration of Major” form in the recycling bin.

You realize that if a 2055 version of you got in a time machine and appeared in your bedroom to say, “No one but your Mom will buy your books. Critics will say your first novel is better as toilet paper than reading material,” you would still write. While you would love for the world to read your stories, you don’t write for other people. You write because you simply cannot imagine a life in which you are not a writer.

This realization is liberating. The daunting question of “Will I ever make it?” becomes irrelevant when you realize that fame is a byproduct, not a cause, of happiness.

It’s 1:00am. You sit back down at your computer and vow to never abandon your characters again. You have another cup of coffee and continue writing, delirious with hope.


This blog post/story/article is hypothetical. Details do not necessarily reflect my own experiences.