Learning to Read: Learning to Feel

(한국어 공책)

I wonder, from time to time, why I bother with Korean. I know enough Korean to deal with my in-laws. I can hold my own in Korea. Anything complicated, Good Man or his family would handle (or Master, if need be). I don’t intend to study in Korea. I don’t want to become famous there. So why do I bother to continue my Korean studies? Why not plateau out where I am right now?

And then I pick up one more book written in Korean…

One of the joys of reading in Korean is that it forces me to slow down and enjoy a book.

One of the pains of reading in Korean is that it forces me to slow down and understand a book.


Months ago, I ended up finding an article about a North Korean who was born into Camp 14. His North Korean name was Shin In-kun, but in South Korea he goes by Shin Dong-hyuk. He lived in the camp his entire life until he escaped.

(Some people don’t believe his story and say it’s impossible that he escaped from the entirely controlled zone of Camp 14. I know memoirs tell the author’s truth. I also know that terrible things are happening in North Korea, and nobody wanted to believe the atrocities that Nazi Germany was carrying out were true when they came to light.)

He wrote a book about his experiences in Camp 14, but it’s only available in Korean (세상 밖으로 나오다). I asked Sister to buy it for me and she did, reading it herself before she sent it to me. Sister wrote on the note she sent:

그리고 2시간만에 다 읽었어요… 읽는 내내 답답하고 화나고.. 그랬어요. 휴~

And I read the entire book in only two hours. The whole time I was sorrowful and angry. Well… sigh…

I put the book aside for a few months. I was working on my million characters goal, and that was all about extensive reading. I was reading for pleasure, not worrying about what I couldn’t understand.

I feared I wouldn’t be able to understand the language, and I worried that it would be too hard. I picked up the book about two weeks ago, and I gathered my mini flashcards on a ring (also sent by Sister in the same package), prepared to make a lot of flashcards. I was ready to do a slow, intensive reading so that I wouldn’t miss anything. I wanted to give Shin the respect I suspected his work would deserve.

The chapters in the book are very short, and it’s illustrated in Shin’s own hand. The great thing about short chapters is that I’m not overwhelmed by a huge block of text, and I can pick up the book, read it for just a few minutes, and end at a good stopping place.

The book is just about perfect for my reading level. The words I don’t understand are almost always either North Korean (with South Korean equivalents given parenthetically) or political words specific to North Korea that even Good Man doesn’t know. I can mostly figure those out by context. I’m sure I don’t get all of the details, but I get far more than I was expecting.

So I haven’t made a single flashcard. I haven’t needed to. Even so, I’ve only been reading this book for twenty or thirty minutes a day. It’s intensive reading, but not in the way I expected.

When I read in English, images flash into my head quickly. The pace of my reading makes it necessary to shake the image away quickly. By the time the image has been created, I’m already halfway through the next sentence.

But when I read this in Korean, the image builds itself piece by piece. Slowly.

When the image fills in, I exhale deliberately, close my eyes, and hold the picture in my mind. I’ve read about these things in English. I know these things happen.

But reading the words in Korean, by a Korean, held as a prisoner in North Korea? It’s much more powerful. The image lingers. I can’t shake it away. I can’t ignore it.

농촌지원을 나가면 쥐를 많이 잡을 수 있어서 일주일 내내 쥐를 잡아먹은 적도 있다. 쥐가 보이지 않으면 한 달에 한 번도 못 먹은 적도 있다.

쥐를 잡으면 그 자리에서 바로 먹지 않고 학교로 가져와서 “화구”에 구워먹는다. 작업이 끝난 후 친구들끼리 모여 잡아온 쥐를 꺼내 놓고 함께 먹는다. 친한 친구들끼리 모여서 먹는데, 쥐 잡아먹는다고 나무라지는 않는다. 여름에는 나뭇가지를 모아서 굽기도 하고, 작업반 내 불 피워놓은 곳에서 구워먹기도 한다.

화장실에도 쥐가 많은데, 화장실에 있는 쥐를 잡아먹기도 한다. 쥐가 관리소에서 많이 걸리는 병인 “비라그라”(펠라그라)에 좋다고 한다. 오히려 뱀보다 쥐가 영양가가 많다.

If you went into the fields, there were many rats, so sometimes we were able to eat a rat every day of the week. Sometimes, we didn’t see many rats and we went a whole month without eating one.

When we caught rats we didn’t sit down and eat them right away. We went to the school and roasted them over a fire. When labor ended we shared the rat with our friends. Good friends gathered together and didn’t get punished just for eating rats. In the summer we made a fire of twigs and the labor group met in that location to roast the rat.

There were many rats at the bathroom, so sometimes you could grab rats there. At the political camp, rats were a good way to treat pellagra. Rats had more nutritional value than snakes.

The Bad Luck Team

As soon as the league secretary approached us tonight, I knew what was coming. “Not another postbowl?”

“Well, yeah, they called and the guy…something with work.”

“Every even week, we get a postbowl. Are we the Bad Luck Team?” I joked.

She nodded, “It does seem to happen in every league, that there’s one team who always gets postbowled against.”

It’s not nearly as fun to bowl without another team to cheer with. But we did win two out of three games and the series against the team we should’ve lost to, the team who’s so good they don’t even have a handicap. And the first team that postbowled against us, we won most of the games. So maybe postbowling is better for us. Ha.

Good Man and I did OK tonight. He was one pin short of +1 over average and I was two pins short of the same goal. Good Man also scored a 153, his best league game so far.

Corn Chip Smell

After being beautiful for the last couple of days (mid-70s on Friday) today turned very cold and windy. Since most of my students didn’t have coats, we stayed inside for recess.

When we received our classroom worm bin and worms, the packaged were filled with cornstarch packing peanuts. I saved them in boxes, figured I’d use them for…something…later.

Mark’s Lover works at a hospital and has access to a bunch of surgical bins. They’re basically big blue plastic bowls. He asked if I could use them in school and I took them, figuring I’d use them for…something…later.

During recess today I gave each student a blue bin. I gave each table a bowl of peanuts and another bowl of water. Students dipped the peanuts in water and stuck them together to make different shapes and figures.

They were happy because they were having messy fun. I was happy because recess was fairly calm and the bowls helped them keep their desks clean. When recess was over, they set the bowls aside so their artwork could dry and we went on with our day.

When a coworker walked in the room after class she said, “Why does it smell like corn chips in here?”

Schooling the Ball. A Little Bit.

At league tonight we went up against a team I’m been looking forward to going up against, because the wife and I have chatted before league most weeks.

While I didn’t “school that ball” as HL suggested, I did do a lot better than last week, when my three games were 73, 107, and 110. This week I decided that no matter what happened, I was not going to let the game get to my head. I bowled a 102, 116 and 114. Not great, but since my league average is 99, it was great for me at league. Good Man bowled 100, 125, 122 and his league average is 118, so he did a little worse than usual.

The team we were up against didn’t do as well as they usually do and once we factored in the handicap, we ended up winning all three games.

The lanes were drier than last week, but the ball return on one of the lanes kept getting stuck, which was really annoying.

I had no idea when we signed up for league that there was prize money for everyone. Even the really bad teams. Last week we voted on prize distribution options. We haven’t found out which option won the most votes, but even if we’re the absolute worst team, we’ll end up with at least $130 as a team at the end.

Note to Korean Drama Watchers

Dear Korean Drama Watchers From That Knitting Site I Spend Too Much Time On:

Korean men are not like the ones on TV. The same is true in your home country, in case you didn’t notice.

Korean women are not like the ones on TV. The same is true in your home country, in case you didn’t notice.

If you don’t know 한글, you can not even begin to claim that you “know Korean.”

167 Thoughtful Forks

Good Man brought me a half a piece of cake.

“Thank you, can I have a fork?”


“How should I eat this without a fork?”

Good Man stared at me. “Thoughtfully.” He left the room, “You are not like MacGyver. You are not really American.”


We had a really nice weekend. Yesterday we met Diana and Min Gi for lunch. We attempted to go bowling but the place near Diana’s place is always running leagues and nothing was open. We ended up relaxing at their place, the menfolk watching some Korean documentary, the womenfolk bitching about No Child Left Behind and the plight of education in America.

In the evening, we had dinner with Diana’s parents. Diana’s parents have sort of adopted us. We spent Christmas Eve at their house, for example. One day, Good Man and Min Gi went sailing with Diana’s Dad. Diana’s Mom gave me quilting hints when I told her I was making Dad a denim quilt.

Anyhow, Diana’s Mom called it a Valentine’s Day dinner, and Diana’s sister and boyfriend came as well. We had food at a great Korean restaurant (which Good Man loved, since he’s been craving Korean lately) and shared first date stories. A very nice day and evening.


Today, Good Man and I tried bowling again. Although we had coupons for AMF, we went to the Bowl America. Since we are league bowlers ($1 discount per game) and we were wearing red (one free game each, for Valentine’s Day) the total cost of eight games came in at under $18. Not a bad price at all.

I won three out of four games and beat last week’s personal high score! My new personal high is 167!

Now. Why can’t I do that at league??

Star of the Week

The team Good Man and I were supposed to go against tonight is going to postbowl, which was fine with us since their average is over 440.

I did worse than last week (a trend) and Good Man did better (a trend). I did figure out midway through the first game that one lane was hanging right and the other was bowling straight. Once I figured that out, I got a bit better.

Good Man found a certificate waiting for him since he bowled a game which was 49 pins over average last week. He took it in stride, but I was completely amused and very proud of my STAR OF THE WEEK husband.

A Gifted and Talented Credit Card

Went out with a bunch of coworkers for lunch today. One coworker handed over her credit card and the waiter teased her, saying they wouldn’t accept cards from that team.

Then he looked at my credit card, which sports the periodic table of the elements on it. “And what do you teach?”

“Third grade,” I said.

My coworkers stared at me. One goaded me, “Third grade…what?”

“Third grade gifted and talented,” I said, nodding.

The waiter teased, “Can’t imagine someone with this card teaching smart kids.”

A Clean Desk

“Ms S,” said the student who thinks I need a dog, “are you getting a sub?”

“Why?” I asked. Usually I tell the students if I’m going to get a sub. I’ve been feeling ill for a few days and haven’t decided if I’ll get a sub or not tomorrow, but I wrote up plans just in case. Since I’m not sure if I’ll be out, I didn’t tell the students.

“Well,” he said carefully, “you cleaned your desk. And your desk is only clean when you’re getting a sub.”

I tried hard not to laugh. Am I that transparent? I smiled and headed to the door, “I need to go to class boys and girls, bye!”

The student looked at his table group. “I think she’s getting a sub.”


Last night Good Man and I met Mark and his Lover over at Diana and Min Gi’s house. We had a great dinner and played three games of Mr Joker. Team Civilian (Mark, Diana, and I) beat Team Military three times in a row. Wha-hoo!

Today, Diana and Min Gi came over to our place and we went bowling since AMF was having an “all you bowl for $10 on Super Bowl Sunday” deal.

Speaking of bowling, Good Man and I did terribly at our bowling league this week. And by that I mean “Good Man did better this week than last at league and I did so terribly that I pulled him down and we lost all seven available points.”

Enough about league.

We bowled six games (yes, my shoulder aches). During the first game I got my first turkey (three strikes).

“My first turkey, my first turkey!”

I then pulled out a personal high of 156 (former personal best was 142). Every other game was also over 100 and Diana and I beat the men four games out of six.

Now why can’t I do that at league?