How to get English for free

I’m walking to the bus stop because it’s finally a decent day after all the cold and freezing and wet that is winter.  Finally, I can walk with just a light jacket.  I have my headphones in, not loud enough to thoroughly enjoy but quiet enough to hear a motorbike come up behind me on the sidewalk.  Safety first.

Except it’s not a motorbike that comes up behind me.  It’s a regular bike.  And the guy pushing it is yelling “excuse me” at me like I’m thoroughly enjoying my music.  Which I’m not so he’s really loud.

Usually I humor strangers on the street, and I’m still hopeful it will turn out to be a good thing someday.   I’m optimistic.

I keep walking but I take my headphones out to be polite, and he starts in, pushing his bike and walking just far enough behind me that I have to turn my head uncomfortably to make eye contact.   “I saw you walking.  I see you are foreigner.”

I reply, but not in English.  Something about being pointed out as foreign is not impressive enough to give him what he wants.  So I say, in Korean, “Are you Korean?”

Sometimes it’s not safe to reply in a language different from what a stranger speaks to you.  Part of me was hoping that he was not Korean and he might recognize that I was putting him in a box, just like he had done to me a second ago.

Alas.  He is Korean, understands me perfectly, and has no idea that his greeting has rubbed me the wrong way.  He is also nervous and probably has planned what he is going to say next because he is already saying it.

“We can be friends!  You can teach me English and I can be your friend.”

I have a sliver of benefit of the doubt to grant him.  Maybe he just sucks at English and is meaning to make a polite request, but can’t.

I decide to switch to English to prove to him that I am an English master.  “What do you do?”  If he wants to be my friend, maybe a friendly conversation can bring out the best of him.

“I am a student.  I go to school and I play music at night.  I play guitar!  But I have no money.  Stop stop stop stop, I live up there.  (pointing to a side street we just passed)  Are you married?  If we are married, we can’t meet.”

I stop walking but keep my distance.  He closes it.  I decide full disclosure is best.  “I’m not married, but I have a boyfriend.  I think we should not meet anyway.”

I expect awkward silence but there is none because he’s talking again.

“Good, if you are married we can’t meet.  Boyfriend is okay.  We can meet in a coffee shop and you can teach me.  I will be your friend.”

“No.”  There’s the awkward silence.  “I work for a church.  You live up there?  The church is close by.  At the church, I teach a beginning English class.  If you want to learn English, you can come to the class.  Everyone is welcome.”

“Okay, but I want to meet you so yo…

“No.  I’m very busy.”

“Kakao talk ID give me.”  The equivalent of getting my phone number, except that he doesn’t get my actual phone number and I can block him much easier if I need to.

I put my ID in his phone.  I figure I will remind him about the church English class later.

He finally lets me go on my way after some more denied friend requests, and I pretty much end up just walking away.

This happens to me often, and I usually offer that I work for a church that has a service in both English and Korean, and they can speak to me there.  But what I would really like to tell them is that:

  1. A foreigner is not for sale by friendship.  We have our own friends already.  If you want me to do something free for you, do my grocery shopping.
  2. A foreigner might teach English… FOR MONEY.  Why do you think we will give a stranger free lessons?
  3. Please don’t ask the invasive questions that are okay in Korean culture but taboo in many others.  Ergo, are you married, how old are you, do you have kids, how much do you weigh?  All of which have been enquired of me by a stranger.

But here’s what you can do.

  1. Say hello (English language check), and strike up a conversation if you’d like to practice.  Good questions are: Where are you from, how long have you been in Korea, what do you like about it, etc.  Want to be friends?  Be interested in us instead of what we can give you.  At the end say it was nice to meet you and ask for contact information.  For example, “It was nice to talk to you.  Do you want to get coffee sometime?  I know this awesome cafe that I take all my friends to.”  See what I did there?  Magic, you’re friends now.  By making a friend, we will be teaching you de facto through conversation.

May I point out that if you already have a foreign friend, at NO POINT in the friendship is it okay to request us to teach you English.  No matter how good of friends we are.  It always turns the friendship into a used-user relationship.

Be more specific in your request: ask nicely for us to explain a certain phrasal verb, or ask for clarification of past perfect tense for your upcoming test.   And if you have a report or something you want me to help with, you do all the work and I happy to help you by checking it.

More recently, while on vacation in the U.S. I received a text message from an acquaintance.  “Katie, when your English class?”

I explained I don’t teach a class at the moment- it’s summer- and besides that I was gone for 2 weeks.

“Okay but I want to learn English.”

I left it at no response until I notified him of my return to Korea.  Suddenly, he shows up at my work place- with a notebook, ready to study.

I asked if he had a textbook.  No.  Did he study on his own?  Yes.  How?  Nothing.  Why did he want to learn English?  English is important for getting jobs these days, so he needed a good test score.  He confessed he forgot what he learned in school.

I led the conversation into what he had done during the summer, and what he was going to do this month.  He had some travel plans that were interesting to talk about, so it lasted for a while.  But then I broke the news.

I was currently working, and that did not involve tutoring him on work time.  Nor would it ever, but if the church held a class again, I would be sure to let him know.  He could attend an academy that would provide structure, a book, and people to study with.  Or he could pay me to tutor him at the going rate- 40,000 an hour.  I also had a professional tutor friend who would gladly take him on for 60,000.

He looked sheepish when I said I was working.  He looked hopeful when I said I would let him know if there was a new beginning English class.  But then he looked distant when I suggested an academy, and he looked angry when I stated my rate.

I’m not sorry.  I am sorry that expectations on foreigners seem to be out of whack.

Koreans, is it common to use friends like this?  Should I know that this is normal?

Fellow Waygooks, how do you handle these awkward conversations?


the Teacher becomes the Student

I should have known before I even started teaching.  My gram still talks about her teaching days and some of her old students.  I could have learned from her.  I could have learned that some kids find their way into your heart as you implore them day after day to do their homework and to stop making farting noises in class.  After 10 months of teaching in Korea, I’ve realized the individual personality of each kid has become my favorite part.

Friday was my last day as a teacher for a while.  I’ll be trying something new after catching up with the fam in the states.  But I won’t forget this year, and the students I taught- who taught me simultaneously.

Here’s the last of their wisdom:

Never be afraid to make a fart joke or a poop joke.  Even if you are the only 12 year old girl in a class full of boys.  Even if you are the only one laughing at the joke.

Never chew gum in a language class.  It makes it hard to pronounce difficult words clearly.  And you might choke while you’re thinking about what to say.

Repeat things that you hear often.  Such as “Wow, good job!” “Have a good weekend!” and “Let it go… let it go!”   Don’t worry about the appropriate time to say these things.  Also, try combining several together, like “Teacher, can I go to the water?”  or “Teacher, may I drink some bathroom?”

Don’t be afraid to fudge the rules a little.  Love almost rhymes with tub and rub.  I lub you too, students.

Try to relate things to make it easy to remember.  Food has so many compound words.  Pancake, meatball, cheesecake, milkshake.  Sunkist fits too, if your teacher isn’t paying attention.

Pick your nose in style.  Then, wait with your nose gold on your finger until its safe to sneak it into your mouth.  No matter how long you have to wait.

If you’re not sure if it’s a “C” or an “O”, just write the “C” with a really small opening.

Sometimes when you’re trying to talk, nodding your head in an exaggerated motion may help you get the words out.  Take a deep breath and start speaking when your head reaches the bottom of the nod.

Just because you’re not good at writing doesn’t mean you won’t shine when you’re belting out “Old MacDonald had a farm… EiEiOOOOOO!


Always look as cute as possible, even when all you have to show off is a hard-boiled, home decorated egg.

Last but not least, when someone corrects you, just go along with it.  For example, when you say “Teacher, me hungry” and are corrected- “Mickey, I’m hungry,”  just smile sweetly and say “Me too!”


Star Students- September

How was the first month of school, you ask?  Well after 6 weeks of teaching in Korea, I can tell you that kids are the same anywhere.  They will play tricks on each other, they will cheat when you’re not looking, and they will yell and whine almost constantly.  They will also give you winning smiles, work hard for your attention, and work their way into your heart.

I love teaching.  And I love the students.  Each and every one of them.  Sometimes.

I have saved up some funny stories to tell you about a few…

Every teacher has that kid who’s English name is Harry, and who refers to themselves as Harry Potter, and sometimes uses their pencil like a wand.  Only in Korea are thick glasses in style- just like Harry Potter’s.

In my youngest class, I have a boy who hums instead of speaking Korean.  Speaking Korean is not allowed, and he has to make noise when he tries to communicate.  Therefore, while he mimes what he wants, he hums.  For example, the other day, he held up his broken pencil and goes “duh dada DUH!”  Of course, I immediately understood that he wanted to go sharpen his pencil, but the added theme music was too much!  (The Star War’s Imperial March is also in his repertoire, which he hums to himself while doing his homework.)

I have one kid who can’t see, and doesn’t even try to hide it.  He shamelessly asks me to read what’s on the board several times so he can write it down… since he can’t see far enough to read the board 10 feet away.

One of my students started telling me about the watermelon with a face he drew while waiting for class to start.  I asked for his homework.  He said he drew the watermelon instead.

One little boy pretends to stab me with his pencil every time I come close.  The kicker is that he has to close one eye to do so.

Then there’s the whole class who gave me a nickname the very first day I taught them.  It’s started to spread through the whole school.  I guess I should find out what it means sooner rather than later.

Just this past week, I taught a story about hockey to an older, advanced group of students.  When you have trouble distinguishing between the pronunciation of an “f” and a “p” sound in English, hockey puck is not the greatest word to say repeatedly.

For a reward before the holiday weekend, I let some of the older kids play dodgeball for the last 10 minutes of class, as long as they spoke English while doing it.  The biggest classroom available is still quite small, and when you are a 15 year old boy, the ball takes a fraction of a second from the hand to the target.  One of the boys found a string, tied it around his waist, and yelled “Taikwondo!”  He started moving around the room in slow motion, chopping the air with his hands and throwing kicks.  Miraculously, he did not get hit by the ball.  The other team aimed for his teammate instead.  Everyone seems to enjoy free entertainment.

Kids will be kids, and although school is usually a loud environment, it’s a happy one.