Christmas Eve in East Asia is for lovers

It’s an hour before midnight, and I’m sitting in the first-floor lounge of a hostel in Tokyo, alone with a couple of cans of Kirin-brand chuhai and my laptop. Well, there was the Middle Eastern guy who sat at the same group of tables, but he left promptly after finishing off his Christmas Eve dinner of convenience store-bought chicken and rice. This year was a long and uneventful year, at least when it came to writing, which is why there were only two blog posts. It was also a long and eventful year when it came to relationships, which is also why there were only two posts and also why I’m sitting here, writing this blog post on Christmas Eve. I don’t like talking about my personal life, especially on a public forum (regardless of how little traffic this blog gets), but I’ve realized quite a few things this year related to writing.

Thoreau wrote, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood to live.” Says the guy who retreated from society to live a couple years in the middle of the woods. I would consider my daily life to be similar to his albeit very loosely so, an urban wilderness with a pond comprised of alcohol. For the previous four years, I was mostly alone. Aside from work, which is rarely more than a couple of hours a day, I have minimal social interactions with the people around me. I’m constantly surrounded by people, strangers, and they mostly leave me alone, which I appreciate. The times I drank with others was infrequent, rarely more than once or twice a month, and I avoided dating almost altogether, to the point that some would openly question my sexuality. There were some intermittent occasions when something—or I should say someone—fell into my lap, but those relationships ended almost as soon as they started, almost always with the girl accusing me of not having any room in my life for anyone else. I never argued that it was not true; I would usually just tacitly agree and let them leave.

While there are many varying reasons for my anti-social behavior, the fact was that it worked for me. More importantly, it worked for my writing. I need time alone to write. I’m very easily distracted. I distract myself very willingly but resent it when the source of those distractions is external. I am a creature of habit, and I’m fiercely protective of this comfortable lair I’ve built up in which to write. Unfortunately, it’s not ideal for relationships.

But that damned Thoreau quote eternally haunted me in the recesses of my mind. Have I stood and lived enough to actually write? In that sense, the memoir was easy. All those years ago, I was forced to experience something unusual, and to put it down on paper, all I had to do was to kick-start this rusty memory of mine. Back then, I thought that writing novels would be much easier. Instead of trying to remember, something which I’m dismal at, I would be able to simply let loose my morbid imagination and the ideas would come spilling out. However, relationships play a big role in my next novel, and one thing I realized is that I don’t really know much about being in a relationship. The longest relationship I had been in was debatably six months, depending on who was doing the calculating, and the mode was a measly month. This was the part of life that I hadn’t really stood up to live.

Without going into too much detail, I started the longest relationship of my life this year. It barely topped my record by one month, again depending on how you calculate things. It was the cliché emotional roller coaster, and after a while, I had to get off the ride. During the seven months, I did very little writing, either because she demanded my time or because I wasn’t in the right emotional state to focus on my writing. But now that I’ve been able to start writing again in earnest, I realize that it helped me to remember what it was like to be in what can be called a relationship, something I had long forgotten. It has given depth to the story I’m working on, something I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

She still contacts me frequently, which stresses me out but I endure for reasons I won’t get into, and so I decided to do the less than mature thing and run away and spend my winter vacation in Japan. Why, you ask? Because, in East Asia, Christmas Eve is for lovers.

For the first week, I stayed with married friends, one of whom is an alcoholic, because I make very little money from my day job and writing and I wanted to keep expenses at a minimum. In general, drinking with married people is not that fun. When things are good, they talk about their kids and go through their phones and show you all of these pictures that really should only go on Facebook so people can pretend to care from a distance. When things are bad, they talk about their marital strife. I never share it but I always think, “I’m so glad I’m not married.” Actually, sometimes I share it. But this time, hearing those kind of things actually helped me because the character in the book I’m working on eventually gets married and I had no idea how to fill in the plot.

I’ve learned a lot this past year from my interactions with other people, and hopefully the novel will be better for it (although it’s still at the garbage first draft stage). But I still prefer my solitude. Even if it means that I’m spending Christmas Eve alone in a hostel lobby, just me and my alcohol. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

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New Book: Student Error Correction Guidebook for EFL Teachers in Korea

Of the four projects I’ve been working on for the past two to three years, I’ve finally managed to get one out of the way, the English version of the “textbook.” I’ve called it a textbook for lack of a better term and lack of a clear sense of direction, but I’ve finally reached a point where I didn’t want to work on it anymore but felt it was good enough to publish. Ah, that sweet spot of creativity.

The book is a result of the past 11 years I’ve spent at my job teaching English to college students. In a very similar way to the memoir, this guidebook was not something I intended to publish initially but rather a collection of notes I kept for myself and later wanted to share with the other teachers at our institute who couldn’t speak Korean. As the collection grew and became more detailed, I thought that it could be a good resource for any teacher of English in Korea in hopes of raising the overall conversational ability of students here.

I chose to self-publish this version for teachers primarily because of the small size of the audience. As it says in the title, the target audience is EFL teachers in Korea. If there are around 20,000 English teachers here, I’ll be happy if even a tenth of a percent, 20 people, buy the book. While there is a possibility the Korean version for students might make some money, the fact is that a different audience means a completely different approach, resulting in countless months of writing. It might seem foolish to waste so much time for something that might only make 40 dollars in profit but writing is not about the money for me.

The book: Student Error Correction Guidebook for EFL Teachers in Korea

guidebook cover a.jpg


Here is a sample language point from the book:

Problematic example sentence: “I’m finding a job.”

Problem summary: 일자리를 찾다 iljari chatda find a job → look for a job

Explanation: This error stems from the broad meaning of the Korean word chatda (찾다), which many students think can be simply replaced in all situations with the verb “to find.” In actuality, chatda contains not only the meaning of “to find” but also “to look for” or “to search for.” The first step is to explain to students the difference in scope between chatda and “to find.”

“To look for/to search for” emphasizes the process while “to find/to discover” emphasizes the result. As a result, chatda in the present and future tense can usually be translated as “to look for/to search for” while chatda in the past tense can usually be translated as “to find/to discover.” Of course, there are exceptions to this depending on whether the process ended with a result (e.g., “I was looking for my keys but I couldn’t find them.”) or whether there is continuous discovery of results (e.g., “I like finding good places to eat.”).

Corrected example sentence: “I’m looking for a job.”

Corrected example sentence: “After months of searching, I’ve finally found a job.”

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Web Review and Interview: Bookish Asia

It’s been a long time since my last post and even longer since the last posting related to promotion for the memoir (almost three years). So I was surprised when I was contacted by John Ross at Camphor Press, “an independent publishing house focused on Taiwan and the wider East Asia region,” coincidentally the publishers of the book Barbarian at the Gate, a memoir about a Caucasian American who served in the Taiwanese Army. I had heard of the book in passing, and it was interesting to discover the similarities between the military cultures of Korea and Taiwan.


The book review and an author interview have been posted to the Bookish Asia site, “a book review site dedicated to showcasing quality fiction and non-fiction works about Asia.”


The review

The interview

One thing that I appreciated about the interview is that the questions were very informed about issues related to Korea and military service. It is a reflection of an interviewer who’s well-versed on Asia, military service in Asia, and author interviews in general.

In other news, I’m completing the final edits on the EFL teacher’s edition of the English guidebook and hope to publish it by the end of the month or beginning of May. My translator is currently at work on the Korean edition for students, but it will probably require a couple more rounds of edits before I start looking for domestic publishers. And I’m still working on two novels and hope to have a finished draft of the more developed manuscript for editing by next year.

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A rare update

When I woke up yesterday, I was feeling slightly depressed, which was an unfamiliar feeling because I’m generally satisfied with my life. There are other contributing factors, but the problem is that I haven’t been writing much. I haven’t written much since my last post and wrote almost nothing in the past week. The self-hate I feel when I’m not writing gets pretty bad.

The summers are not good for me. I’m busy with my day job—half of the hours I work during the year are crammed into a two-month period—and this year I’ve been abnormally social since the start of the summer—I had eight friends visit from overseas and two more that were leaving Korea.

But no matter how busy I am, I never get too busy to write. Even during the summer, I was making time to work on my own stuff. This past week, I was just distracted by video games and working on a fixer-upper motorcycle I picked up because my previous bike broke down a couple weeks ago. If I get around to getting in good working order and all nice and pretty, maybe I’ll get around to writing a post about it.

That being said, the biggest distraction is not really a distraction per se but the English textbook I’ve been working on. I wanted to finish it by the end of this year so I could completely focus on my novels from next year but it’s slow going. My translator is currently on hiatus because she’s writing her graduate thesis right now, and I’ve been struggling with the more frustrating entries that will inevitably result in every asshole adding his/her two cents and nobody being satisfied. It’s incredibly technical and boring and does much to sap my quickly depleting motivation.

“As a writer, you should always be working on more than one book,” I was told long ago. I recognize the wisdom in that statement, but the problem is that I just can’t work that way. I can only focus on one thing at a time. It’s just the way my brain works. I’ll get up to do something, and once I’m up, I’ll see something that makes me think of something else, and I’ll completely forget why I got up in the first place. This happens to me constantly throughout every single day. The only thing I can do is power through the textbook as quickly as possible so I can get back to the novel.

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20 Reviews

I finally got my 20th review on Amazon.


It’s actually not many at all, but it was something nice to discover since the 10th review was written almost two years ago, in August 2015.

4.6 out of 5 is a pretty decent score. In all honesty, five of the reviews were written by friends or acquaintances so the value could be skewed if they were being generous. Those reviews were, however, unsolicited. I don’t like to beg.

I’m really struggling with the novel these days and am still trying to wrap up the English “textbook” so I’ve rarely given a thought to the memoir lately. I keep meaning—since the inception of this blog, in fact— to post some of the stories that I cut from the final draft of the memoir. Unfortunately, laziness and frustration probably means that it will stay that way until things change.


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Taking the TOPIK II

On Thursday, I got my results for the TOPIK II I took last month.

The TOPIK II is for levels 3 to 6 (intermediate to advanced) and the best possible score is 300—100 points each for Writing, Listening, and Reading. One thing that’s nice is that you don’t apply for a set level; you pass levels based purely on your score. You pass level 3 at 120 points, level 4 at 150, level 5 at 190, and level 6 at 230. It doesn’t matter how you do on an individual section as long as your total score exceeds those benchmarks. You could skip one complete section and still pass level 5 if you ace the ones you take.

I passed Level 6 only because of this kind of forgiving scoring system. I got a 253, which is decent, an 84 percent, but if a fail in one section meant a fail on the test, I would have failed. I did well on the relatively easy Listening (96) and Reading (98) sections, but I failed Writing (59). It’s a good thing I don’t write in Korean.

84 percent may seem like a good percentage, but you also have to remember that I’m Asian. I grew up a latch-key kid, but I’m my own worst Asian parent. I’ve also been living in Korea for over 14 years, including two years of immersion in the Korean Army, and I still got a B. Not that I’m going to study and take it again. There was no point in me taking the test in the first place, and it was a painful experience.

The beginning

The test was on a Sunday, and because I didn’t register early, I had to go all the way out to Korea Polytechnical University (KPU), down near the southern end of the blue line (Line 4). (For those of you interested in taking the test for whatever reason, register as soon as the registration period starts. I registered probably a month before the test, and there were no spots for the test in Seoul, at least for the TOPIK II.) I drove because the weather was nice for a change, but the roads there are shitty and I took a wrong turn or two. I still managed to make it there with fifteen minutes to spare so I bought a cup of coffee and chain-smoked a few cigarettes in the parking lot. There was only one break time scheduled for the three or four hours of the test so I had to get enough nicotine in my system to hold me down until the break.

The classroom number was on my registration slip, and inside the classroom, the desks are assigned by examinee number. During the half hour or so before the test began, the proctors explained the procedures and tested the audio. I got the impression that they take the test far too seriously. For example, they collected all of our cell phones and put them in these special binders, announcing that we would only get them back at the end of the test. They also announced that there would be no bathroom breaks so I didn’t see the point of taking our phones. It sucked because I put some stuff on my phone for the sole purpose of keeping myself entertained during the break. They also announced that the wearing of hats was not allowed. For God’s sake, it was a Sunday. I have to take a shower just to take a test?

All you need to bring is your registration slip, and even that they don’t let you keep on your desk. They give you a special pen, with one thick end for filling in Scantron bubbles and one thin end for the Writing section. There is correction tape (Wite-Out), but they don’t give each person their own. The TAs have it and you have to raise your hand for them to bring it to you.

Needless to say, I regretted coming instantly.

Part 1: Listening and writing

The test started off with the Listening section, which was really painful. The person in the recording spoke really slowly. They only play the recording once for most of the questions except where there is a pair of questions to answer for one scenario. The hardest part is maintaining your concentration and not drifting off while waiting for the person to hurry up and finish saying the goddam sentence. For a couple of the questions toward the end, it seemed like a couple of answers could have applied, as with any standardized test, but overall, it was really simple.

The test moves straight into the Writing section. There are a couple fill-in-the-blank questions to start off and then a short essay (maybe 200-300 characters) and a long essay (maybe 600-700 characters). The task of the short essay was to write a summary of a pie chart on high school students’ breakfast-eating habits. The topic of the long essay was the value, methods, and benefits of volunteer work.

I got too cocky during this section. I looked at the clock after I finished the short essay, and I had thirty-five minutes to spare. They didn’t give us any scratch paper so I started brainstorming and outlining in my head, which was a waste of time. I looked at the clock again and I had twenty minutes left so I started writing as fast as I could. With time running out, I abandoned any kind of outline I had and started jotting down whatever popped into my head, repeating the same things over and over just to make the 600 character mark. When we handed in our test sheets, I got a glimpse of other people’s papers. At least one person didn’t even try to write the long essay. But I had one of those moments where you see that other people’s papers are drastically different and wonder if you did something wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I did poorly. But I thought it was at least worth a B-, definitely not an F.

Break time

As they were collecting our answer sheets, the proctor dropped the bomb.

“You can’t leave the building during the break time. For those of you who smoke, just hold on until the test is over.”


It was just cruel. The break time was between sections so it’s not like we could do anything outside other than smoke. I walked out of the classroom and toward the elevators, where there were long lines to use the bathroom. Having nothing to do, I climbed all of the stairs, checking on each floor to see if there were any smoking rooms, and I made it all the way to the top floor, hoping to at least get on the roof, only to find signs on the door saying that alarms would go off if the doors were opened. Dejected and out of breath, I went back down. I bought a cup of vending machine coffee, took a piss, returned to the classroom, rested my head on my arms, and tried to take a quick nap.

Part 2: Reading

The final section, Reading, was 70 minutes long. It was too long. If you can read practically anything in Korean, it shouldn’t be a problem. My Korean reading speed is nowhere near my English reading speed, but the passages are straightforward and the choices are not that difficult. Wishing that I could leave early but knowing that they wouldn’t let me, I took a nap for the last half hour.


The test is not difficult, but it is frustrating in its procedures. Play to your strengths because you can still pass level 5 even if you skip one complete section. The Writing section is really the only section for which time is a factor so make sure you save plenty of time for the long essay. Unless you’re taking the test with a friend, bring along a crossword puzzle, a book to read, or a small pillow because there is nothing to do during the break except piss, shit, or nap. If you smoke, buy some nicotine patches or bring an e-cigarette and find a bathroom out of the way. And don’t drink too much water before the test or you’re going to have a bad time.

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My Korean Language Journey

For a unit on language acquisition this past week, I asked my students to share their English language learning journeys. Because the class was for our near-fluent students, there was a greater variety of answers in comparison to answers given in our lower level classes. One of them was born in the States and moved back when he was three. Another spent a year in England and another year at an international program in Germany. Another went to a foreign language high school. The weakest spent years studying for proficiency tests.

During my smoke break at the halfway point in class, I thought about my own journey with the Korean language. There are most probably people who question my lack of Korean language ability prior to the Army experience due to my lack of an English name. Since I was young, people have always assumed I was an exchange student who couldn’t speak English based on my name. When I moved to Seattle, I was placed in remedial English classes in part because of that preconception, even though a cursory examination of my academic record would have shown that I’ve always done well in English classes.

My upbringing was unlike many of my 2nd generation Korean American peers in that my parents never spoke Korean to me when I was young, as I’ve mentioned in the book. My parents are not native English speakers, but they are practically fluent. By the time I was born, my parents had been working and studying in the States for over five years. Back then, there was the belief that children exposed to multiple languages would face problems in terms of language development. My parents wanted me to achieve the American Dream, and they wanted no obstacles in my path to doing so.

However, there is a slight possibility that I was able to speak Korean as a toddler, before I started to develop memories, thanks to my paternal grandmother. One of my earliest memories that may hint at this was that I had to attend speech classes in the first grade along with kids with lisps. Regardless, by the time I entered kindergarten, I couldn’t speak a lick of Korean aside from a few basic food words.

In the fourth grade, my family moved to Korea because of my father’s job. However, I attended an international school for foreign citizens, Seoul Foreign School, and spoke in English almost exclusively throughout those two years. My classes were in English, my friends spoke English, my friends’ parents spoke English, and my parents handled any and all interactions with non-English speaking people. On the rare occasion when a relative or stranger approached me and spoke in Korean, my go-to expression was Mollayo—“I don’t know.” There is a story in the footnotes that explains how the time in Korea actually caused me to develop an aversion to Korean and also to speaking on the telephone.

After my parents’ separation, the family sans my father moved to Seattle. For a short while in middle school, my mother took my younger brother and me to Korean classes at the local Korean church on Friday nights after she got off work. She would often forget in her tiredness, and we would purposely not remind her. When she did remember, she had to bribe us with McDonald’s to get us to go, and even then, we would skip class and play basketball in the church gym. The only expression I remember from one of the classes I actually attended is “Thank you for…” (“~hae jusheoseo gamsahabnida”). It was a very rudimentary expression I rarely used. There’s no need to explain why you’re thankful when a simple thanks will suffice.

In college, I took around two years of Korean classes. My sole purpose was to get easy As. I slacked off freshman year and ended up with a shitty GPA, and Korean classes were notoriously easy. I also took other language classes, and in comparison, Korean classes were a cake walk. Needless to say, I learned very little. By the time I left for Korea, I was still unable to say anything in Korean in a social setting. I tried once and failed miserably.

My first year in Korea, prior to the Army, was also very unproductive in terms of language learning. My plan was to return to the States in a year so I didn’t really try to learn Korean. I never took advantage of Korea’s glorious delivery culture because I would have to speak on the phone in Korean and always picked up my pizza in person.

The best illustration of just how bad my Korean was is something that happened to me during this period. While I was working at the hakwon, someone recommended that I try gamjatang. There was a cheap Korean restaurant between my home and the hakwon that I frequented, and luckily gamjatang was on the menu. I went in and ordered it (“Gamjatang juseyo”), wondering what the big deal was.

When it came out, I looked at the bowl of soup in front of me. There were no potatoes (gamja). I was confused. I thought that perhaps the worker misheard my order. I didn’t have the language ability to ask about it so I ate what was given me, paid, and left.

The next week, I returned to try again. Again I ordered gamjatang, and again I was given the same bowl of soup. Unable to explain that I thought they had made a mistake, I tried to reason to myself that maybe the potatoes were ground up, which was why the soup was so grainy.

It wasn’t until three years later, after the Army, that I found out that gamja actually referred to the cut of pork in the soup.

Of course, the Army was a trying time for me in many ways, one of which was because of language. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a social situation where you’ve been surrounded by speakers of another language, but it’s extremely frustrating and stressful. You have no idea what’s going on and you put up with what you can, but you just want to leave as soon as possible. That’s the problem with the Army, I couldn’t leave. A true sink-or-swim situation.

I’ve heard too often that I was lucky to get such an intensive language learning environment. The thing is, the Army is one of the worst places to learn Korean. The language they use is strange, overly formal, and everything you need to say can be summed up in a few expressions. All of the Korean I learned during those two years was learned on my own. I filled notebooks with vocabulary words I looked up in my pocket dictionary. I bought a Korean grammar book during one of my leaves and filled another notebook with grammar points. I read books in Korean, and at the beginning, a single paragraph would take me an hour.

Even with all of that effort, for some reason, things didn’t really fall into place until I was discharged. I was yelled at because of my inability up until I was a sergeant. I can’t remember having a single decent conversation in Korean during my whole time in the Army.

Over ten years later, my Korean is far from perfect. I stutter and trail off at the end of sentences, hoping that the listener will fill in the rest of the sentence. When people hear that I’ve been here for over 14 years, many rudely comment that I need to study Korean more. My Korean is actually much worse than the year after my discharge because I don’t have many opportunities to use it despite living in Korea. I’m a hermit English teacher who spends all of his free time in a coffee shop trying to write.

Coincidentally, I’m taking the TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korea) tomorrow. I don’t really know why I’m taking it. I should have taken it a long time ago. It’s one of those things that’s on my list of things to do that I have never crossed off the list. I’ve heard it’s fairly easy so I’ve done zero studying for it and will probably go out drinking tonight and end up taking the test hung over.

If only learning Korean had been as easy as this.


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