Tag: teaching English

Of kittens and hagwons

Of kittens and hagwons

Turning my iPod up as loud as I can stand, I’m ignoring everyone else in the staffroom. Realizing that both of my coworkers are staring at me with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, I start in surprise.

“Sabrina,” Kyung-Ha says, “is there a cat?”

Looking from my co-teachers to the cardboard box under Shauna’s desk and back again, I realize that the jig is up.

* * *

“No, Sabrina,” my mom says on the phone. “Don’t do this to me. No. No. No.”

Watching me make my overseas phone call, Shauna’s eyes are round and worried. Not wanting to be involved, Maria and Clare have gone home early. It’s just Shauna, Asia, Emile and me shifting and pacing in a loose huddle. Strangers are barely looking at us as they run up and down the stairs, going in and out of the batting cages.

Just under the steps, someone has laid out a newspaper. There’s a carton of milk and a spoon with just a dribble in it. Not paying the least bit of attention to the spoon or the milk is a tiny orange kitten, no bigger than a ball of yarn, meowing as loud as it can. With distorted K-pop music blaring at each carnival ride, glaring lights flashing and cheap fireworks going off the side of the pier, most people find it easy to ignore.

Before leaving Canada, I promised my mom I wouldn’t acquire any pets. She already has two cats and a dog and she heard a story about a girl who spent hundreds of dollars bringing a dog home from China. Under no circumstances am I to bring this cat home.

“Mom, it’s so small,” I say. “And I’m not bringing it home to you. Shauna’s bringing it home to her mom.”

My mom once nurtured a kitten back from near-death when the mother abandoned it, so I’m sure she can recommend a strategy for saving this one. She says that if we absolutely can’t find the mother, we should check out a pet store and find something called “kitten milk” and feed it slowly with an eye-dropper.

A girl working at the 7-11 generously donates an empty box to our cause and we find a taxi to take us to HomePlus: it’s after nine on a Tuesday and most pet stores are already closed. The kitten mews all through the ride and Emile tries to cover the sound with his own mewing.

Wondering briefly what the taxi driver thinks of foreigners who meow, I remember that my friend Yuri once told me that many Koreans don’t want pet cats because they are considered bad luck. This makes me worry that we won’t be able to find what we want, so I call Chris to see if he can do a Google search on what to feed unweaned kittens. He gives us a short list of ingredients and we head inside.

We quickly learn that HomePlus is not equipped to deal with the rescue of abandoned street cats: there is no kitten milk. Buying the ingredients Chris suggests, Shauna and I wish our friends goodnight and head back to our apartment building. The kitten’s mews are frantic now, but this time neither of us bothers to try and cover the sound for the driver.

It turns out that taking care of a kitten this young isn’t that different from caring for a newborn baby. She needs to be fed every few hours and this presents both the challenge of uninterrupted sleep and going to work. We’ve never explicitly been told we can’t bring pets to school, but it doesn’t seem likely that the kitten, newly named Frankie, will be welcome.

Our office is a narrow room with desks lining the walls. Serving as an irritating obstacle course, a “craft” table and ten chairs fill the rest of the room, forcing seven teachers and the occasional student to navigate with flexibility and gentle pushing. Shauna brings Frankie in a cardboard box and tucks her under her desk without anyone noticing.

For the first part of the day, Shauna manages to time her feedings so that Frankie is asleep while she’s teaching. Once the kindergarteners go home though, she starts teaching her six hour stretch with no real break.

She tries to feed her in the short interval between classes, but it must not be enough because some time after I put my headphones on, Frankie wakes up hungry and probably unimpressed by her cardboard prison. When my coworkers ask if there’s a cat and I hear her mewing, I don’t see how I can deny it.

Kyung-Ha and Helena take turns holding and petting Frankie, who fits comfortably in one hand. When Shauna walks in between classes, she stops, but everyone else coos over the kitten: it’s hard to dislike something so adorable.

For all the problems I have with my hagwon, this is probably the moment when I most appreciate our lack of clear communication. They comment that there is a cat, but no one tells Shauna to take Frankie home. They simply accept Shauna as a working cat-mother, bringing her baby to work when she can’t get a sitter and we simply accept their weirdly progressive views on cat-mother workplace policy.

Art courtesy of Shauna Smith.

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English is crazy—full stop

English is crazy—full stop

Paul is from Yorkshire and sometimes I don’t really know what he’s talking about. I’ve spent most of my life under the mistaken assumption that because English is my first language, I have a really good handle on it. I even studied it in university. Living overseas has changed all that.

Today, he looks troubled, which is unusual for someone I usually see with a wide grin on his face. He walks into the staffroom, puts his teacher’s guide down, sits in the office chair across from me and stares intently into space. I look at him a moment and then turn back to my own desk and continue writing my lesson plan.

“What do you call a full stop?” he asks, looking at me.

“I don’t know,” I say, setting my pen down. Working together in Korea, these conversations come up once in awhile. He might get a text message from his Canadian girlfriend that I have to decipher. Or someone uses the phrase “fanny pack” causing confusion and hilarity: fanny does not mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic.

He picks out a textbook from the colourful row of them on the shelf and opens it on the desk beside me. He points to the end of a sentence.

“That,” he says. “What do you call that?”

“A period,” I say.

“Well, why do you call it that?” he says, glaring at me.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Why? What do you call it?”

Every English-speaking country seems to have their own version of the language. It means you can understand one another ninety percent of the time, but then it betrays you in places you never expected.

“Do you know,” he says, completely ignoring me, “that I’ve been telling the gifted class to use full stops for months? Every day when I look at their writing, I say, ‘You have to remember your full stops at the end of sentences.’”

He sits down in the chair next to me, shaking his head.

“Then, today, Jody puts up his hand and says, ‘Teacher, what is a full stop?’” The corner of my mouth is twitching. “For a month they’ve had no idea what I’m on about.

“Period,” he says, looking at me. “Stupid word.”

The giant blue balloon

The giant blue balloon

Marcelle, Shauna and I are walking together without talking, texting furiously and reading and texting again. Where is everyone? In the Park, still on line two, still on the number one, still sitting in Goose Goose, still somewhere, not answering.

Jill and Asia arrive and we’re surrounded by hipster students and English teaching foreigners wearing skinny jeans and short skirts, tight, flowing, multicoloured arrays of sleek, shiny black to blinding electric yellow and gold mesh, leather, latex, denim, spandex.

I can’t believe I met Jill only a week ago and already we’re hugging and posing for photos like we’re old friends, talking about how we’ll miss one another when she heads back to the States next week.

We’re making summer plans with Asia, the girl who was just a name I hadn’t yet deleted from my phone two weeks ago. She’s smiling and talking to Marcelle by the mojito man and I’m glad it’s such a beautiful, clear spring night.

* * *

On a rainy evening two weeks before, a phone call interrupts the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

“Hi, is this Sabrina?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Could you do me a favour?”

The name on my cell phone screen is ‘Asia’ and I kind of remember who that is. Her number’s been in my phone since we met in a bar last winter and we both promised to hang out. It’s the middle of May, and it’s the first time either of us has called.

Asia says her friend arrived from the US tonight and she’s lost somewhere in Incheon. Her friend has an American cell phone with her, but Asia’s phone won’t call internationally. She wants me to call her friend using Skype.

Typing the phone number into a word document on my laptop, I realize there’s no name to go with this phone number and Asia hangs up before I can ask. The sky outside my apartment is grey and dark.

Paranoid that I’ll type the wrong number in and call a random American at 5am, I cringe, hoping for the best, “Um, hi, is this Asia’s friend?”

Not knowing the person you’re calling’s name turns out not to be important. Asia’s friend tries explaining where she is as the rain starts pouring down on the roof of the supermarket next door.

“The sign says ‘Ganseok Market’ and there’s a Face Shop right here,” she says. Ganseok has a few entrances and Face Shops are everywhere. A Korean couple is helping her, speaking slowly in the background, and she repeats their words back to me.

“Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong,” she says a few times for me. I type this out on my computer in English letters. Reading the location over a few times, I don’t know, at first, what it means.

Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong.

Gunsock shechong

Ganseok si-jang.

Oh.

The name of the market.

In Korean.

I call Asia back and report what I’ve found out, even telling her about the Face Shop.

“I think I know where she is,” Asia says and I wonder if I’ll ever hear from her again.

* * *

Tonight we’re with a group of foreigners from Incheon drinking sojitos, mojitos and other mixed drinks and then we’re in the club drinking buckets of vodka lemonade. We’re dancing, laughing, hugging for hours and then we’re outside, warm without the hot stickiness of summer.

Jill, Asia, Shauna, Marcelle and I arrive in a more deserted version of The Park. Arms are linked together in an act of friendship and to hold one another up.

Shauna is suddenly holding a giant blue balloon.

“Where did you get the balloon?” we ask Shauna and she bounces it in the air.

“It just appeared,” she says, smiling. We all nod and laugh and dance with the balloon and each other.