Thursday, December 16, 2010


I will be going out of town for a couple of weeks, so no blog posts while I'm gone! Also, I am hoping to get back to more frequent posting after I take my big exam in February...

13 Lucky Things I Learned in 2010

1.Everyone else is just as afraid as I am to assert what they really want and to be who they really are. But if I go first, even when I'm scared shitless, others will overcome their fears and do it too. The world will become more meaningful and beautiful.

2.Time does not pass at the same speed for everyone. I need to keep this in mind when creating expectations for myself and others.

3.Money is freedom. I wish that weren't the case, but in our world, it's true. It doesn't take a lot of money to have freedom, but it does take at least enough to create an exit door when you need one. Learning to save is not a virtue. It is a precious tool of survival.

4.There is a sort of frantic, overcompensating rush of words I sometimes find spilling out of my mouth. I realize now that it only happens when I force myself to try to be something I cannot and do not want to be.

5.Changing my mind does not make me insincere. Only lying to myself or others about how my mind has changed would make me insincere.

6.If I think another human being is beautiful, I should never fail to tell them, even if it scares me to say it.

7.I am not obligated to have children. If I want to someday, I can, but it's not required.

8.Comfort is safe and easy, but does not create excitement or stimulate growth. I don't think it's for me. Constant intoxication glimmers with a beauty matched only by the darkness of its destructive impact. I don't think it's for me. In 2011, I will find or create something that falls somewhere in between.

9.Christmas means more when you spend no money at all. All I want for Christmas is to have Brynn read Dickens's A Christmas Carol out loud while Ahren, Megan, Grandma Lo, Kim, and I sip tea, eat those caramel wafer things, and put a jigsaw puzzle together.

10.It is okay to take as much time as I need to make major life decisions, even when they affect other people in my life. Taking time to make the right decision does not mean I am wasting other people's time. They are responsible for their own lives. It is up to them to make sure their lives do not feel wasted. It is up to me to make sure mine does not feel wasted.

11.If I find myself pushing someone else too hard, it might be myself I am subconsciously trying to set free.

12.If I want something badly enough, doors WILL open. They will open because I will finally stop being a lazy coward and begin to do the things I know I need to do to open the doors.

13.I am love.

What did you learn, dear readers?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Giraffe Lady...

...lives with her aging mother out in the suburbs. She used to have her own place before the recession. She used to have a job and spent her nights with friends in a garage band on Lake City Way. She tells me all this at a bus stop at 6:30AM on a Saturday. There's no cover over the stop, so we stand under a fir tree to semi-avoid the drizzle. The streetlight gives her pale blue, watery, red-rimmed eyes a purblind cave fish look. Her frizzy, chin-length red hair sticks out pyramidal from the crown of her head, making her look like a goofy One Piece character. Her breath smells like alfalfa. She is on her way to the zoo, where she's volunteered for decades. She spends every Saturday morning mucking out giraffe pens. All the giraffes have Buddhist and Hindu names, and she tells stories about them like they're her children. Her favorite giraffe was transferred to the Oregon Zoo. She talks about him like he was her boyfriend. His Hindu name started with an H, but what everyone called him was "Houdini", because he always found a way to escape his pen. The Oregon Zoo staff once had to retrieve him from the streets of Portland's Pearl District. He was found looming over a hot dog stand.

She really misses Houdini. It broke her heart when they transferred him. Once, she and her mother dove down to Portland to see him. The Oregon "keeper" took her out to Houdini's field, and he definitely remembered her. She could tell by the way he immediately looked up when he heard her voice.

On the bus, I try to get my own seat, but she insists that we sit together. "It'll be packed soon," she tells me. "We might as well sit with someone we like." I try to look enthused. I'd rather be reading my Aleksandar Hemon, but I try to convince myself that every day life brings us unique opportunities, and that we need to be receptive to them. Besides, I'm cornered in the window seat. What can I do?

She tells me about the length of giraffe gestation, about giraffe lifespan, giraffe nutrition, giraffe illnesses. When she runs out of giraffe facts, she gets a nostalgic look in her eyes. She smiles, shakes her head, and wistfully reminisces, "That Houdini... He was really something." I silently vow to never catch the 6:30AM Saturday bus again. Listening to her makes me want to bolt. Her soul feels lonely. Her breath must smell exactly like a giraffe's. It is more than I can handle.

Magic Spell (Written in Ruby-Slipper-Red Glitter Pencil)

Wake up, Sleepy One. Wake up now. Hear crows outside your window. Look out to see them. Love their beauty for the first time ever. Love them because I love them. Remember the crow photo I took the last time you saw me. Then come find me. You know where. I'll be there with my nerd girl books. Come and tell me your thoughts on true, eternal love. Then I'll put cracks in your illusions, and you can do the same to mine. Come illuminate your flaws for me so I can stop idolizing you. Come with soup on your chin. Come with that hat that makes you look like unappealing Nicolas Cage. Come with hairy knuckles. Come with your hesitation. Come in the door magical, exit human. Come reveal the differences between you and your book collection. Come sweet and beautiful, oddly shaped and curly haired. Come because my void is aching with the delusion that you are what I want you to be. Come be my spontaneous friend... my best friend in the universe. Tell me the vulnerable secrets you hoard so stingily. I'll tell you more of my Bukowski-ugly sins to underscore in your mind that I'm the wrong kind of magic.

I need some help inverting my perspective. I need one last brick to smash a certain film projector in my world... a certain illusion projector that casts beautifully deceptive images upon the screens of you and all of your kind.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

For Judy

I am not a gorp thief. Ahren or Matt might tell you otherwise, but they would be liars. I am an innocent lass with a golden heart full of good intentions. Don't believe their slanderous accusations for a minute!

Here's how it all really happened. It was back when Ahren and I were still roommates. I had never been to Mount Rainier before, and so Matt and Heather invited us to come hike it with them one summer Saturday. Ahren and I prepared our gorp the night before. Ahren filled his Ziploc bag with Skittles (Skittles!), Cheerios, and something else... maybe Chex? Chocolate Chips? Whatever, the point is... NO NUTS! (Ahren has a nut allergy.) And I filled my bag with M&M's (which really DO look like Skittles at a glance), cashews, almonds, walnuts, pretzels, Cheerios, Chex, crutons, barbecue potato chips, and Corn Nuts. (I could DEFINITELY make millions if I started my own gorp business.)

Saturday morning we woke up at 6AM and grunted at each other sleepily as we packed our backpacks. I PERSONALLY put MY gorp in MY backpack. Despite my blurry, spectacle-less 6AM eyes, I knew which bag of gorp was mine. I could tell by the M&M's. I then ate a hearty breakfast alone (Ahren didn't believe in food before eleven), and then we were on our way in Matt and Heather's car. Half an hour later, I was starving. I took out my bag of gorp and began eating it daintily, jaws unhinged like Garfield's, fists full of as much gorp as I could possibly scoop up in each grab. Ahren looked at me in what I can definitely say was disgust. (Maybe a Cheerio was stuck on my nose? Maybe he thought I should chew with my mouth closed? Such an aristocrat, that Ahren!) "Aren't you even going to wait until we get to the mountain?" he asked with disdain. I started to retort with something witty, but then his eyes bulged out with horror. "Hey, that's MY gorp!" he wailed.

I stopped chewing, a crescent of broken Cheerio hanging off my lip. I looked at the crumbs on my pants and the disheveled Ziploc bag in my hands. Two orange Skittles and one chocolate chip were the last sad vestiges of what had once been, I guiltily admit, Ahren's gorp. "Uh..." I stammered, feeling like an ugly, gluttonous hippopotamus. "How could you eat MY gorp?!?!?!" Ahren squealed.

You can imagine how I suffered the rest of the day, Ahren stomping behind me up the mountain, quipping, "Didn't you detect a SLIGHT lack of Cool Ranch flavor Corn Nuts in that bag?" Then there was Matt piping in with, "Hey, where's Ahren's gorp? Oh yeah, that's right, you ATE it all!" Heather was the only gracious one of the bunch, the only one with any manners at all, I tell you. I like that Heather. She's a good one, she is. Matt and Ahren ought to learn from her.

Now I'm sure any fair, intelligent observor will CLEARLY see what occurred here. It is OBVIOUS that Ahren is the real criminal in this case. Anyone who knows him at all will see without a doubt that on that fateful morning, before Matt and Heather picked us up, Ahren tiptoed over to our backpacks as I was enjoying my breakfast. He took advantage of my gastronomical distraction and swapped our gorp bags, all as a dirty prank to malign my reputation. He framed me, I tell you. He WANTED me to eat his gorp, all so he could be the martyr of the situation. He wanted to climb that mountain with an aching noble hunger in his belly so that someday some biographer could write heroic tales about him. But his ploy hasn't fooled me. I'm onto him. That Ahren's not so innocent as he lets on...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Corner Grocery

I first met the owners of Corner Grocery—located in Everett, Washington—a little over three years ago. They came to me through that magic Korean network that never fails to astound me. The first Korean family I tutored for introduced me to a family who introduced me to a family who introduced me to THIS family… And how lucky I was to have met them. Tutoring their children is always one of the high points of my week. Their sons are brilliant. Tutoring them really isn’t work. It’s an honor. And the parents are probably one of the most adorable couples I’ve ever met. I don’t think I’ve ever met such warm and generous people.

Their family first moved here from Seoul at the end of 2006, for three reasons: One, air quality. (The father has some respiratory health problems, and needed to get out of Seoul’s pollution.) Two, educational opportunities for their sons. (The Korean university entrance exam system is ridiculously competitive. Most Korean teenagers get five hours of sleep a night because they spend so much time studying and attending after school and weekend academies.) Three, they have a family member who was already living in the Seattle area. Just a few months after they arrived, they took over the ownership of their family member’s convenience store in Everett. This is how they’ve made their living in this country ever since.

The store is much bigger than it looks from the outside, and it is packed with the usual American convenience store merchandise. Baseball caps are for sale near the register, embroidered with things like “Cowboy Up” and “Air Force”. Behind the register is a backroom with a concrete floor and a portable cooking burner where food can be heated. I don’t know how they would ever have a free moment to take a meal break, though. A customer seems to come in the door every two minutes, even on the rainiest days. Despite the impression I got from the bustling activity, the bad economy has hurt Corner Grocery’s business. But they’re getting by, at least.

A store like this is much easier to run in America than it would be in Korea. In Korea, things are too competitive. Here, running a business is not so intimidating. Most of their customers are Americans and Hispanic immigrants. Having a store in this part of Everett is nice, because the customers are warm and friendly…not cold and arrogant like “downtown people”, they told me. Also, the store is just a short drive from their home, which allows them to balance parenthood with running a business. Sometimes their sons help them out with tasks on the weekends. I remember seeing the boys’ arms splattered with white paint one evening when I came to tutor them over the summer. They had spent the day helping their father paint the store’s roof. Their father laughed and told me he had to pay them to come help! I think the store gives the boys more than just a source of allowance, though. One year, the youngest boy used the store’s walk in freezer to test a theory about light for a science fair project, so there are some unexpected educational benefits. And being ravenous teenage boys who seem to have grow two more inches every time I see them, I’m sure they take advantage of the store’s snack foods when they can get away with it!

I have learned one very important thing about immigrants in America. Their education levels often exceed what Americans might assume from looking at the jobs they end up taking in this country. When I was a student at Shoreline Community College, I met a Ukrainian doctor who couldn’t work in her field in Seattle because America is so stingy about giving certifications to qualified foreign doctors. (I've heard it’s because American doctors don’t want their high wages threatened.) I once dated a Chilean man who had been an art teacher in Santiago, but who was working as a tree cutter in America, simply because he lacked fluency in English. Americans treated him like a flunky, not like an intelligent man with a master’s degree in art. The owners of Corner Grocery also have career backgrounds that I suspect Americans might not guess. The mother is brilliant at math, and worked as a math tutor in Korea. The father was an engineer for the French plastics company Rhodia.

Because I want to bring more awareness about the actual experiences of immigrants who are running small businesses in America, I will start posting stories every now and then about some of the business owners I’ve met in the Puget Sound region. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Magic Portal Travelers

Magic Portal Travelers are people who grab freedom by the balls and have their way with it. They listen with a patient smile while everyone else in the world lists off all the rules and limitations of the universe, and then immediately turn around and prove that list wrong. They are the people who don't wait around for ten years deciding whether or not they should move to a new city, or whether or not they should leave a relationship they are miserable in. Magic Portal Travelers know there is no such thing as burning bridges...Instead, there is only the creation of wings...wings that allow one to fly across any chasm. If my meaning is not clear, click here. Katwise is a Magic Portal Traveler. You'll see what I mean.

Last Thursday, I met a Magic Portal Traveler. He says I can call him Uncle Jake. I met him at Sureshot, one of my favorite coffee shops in Seattle's U-District. He was sitting on the south wall's sofa, wearing a black beret, glasses, and a thick red coat, reading William S. Burroughs's Junky. I didn't notice him (or anyone) at first because I was absorbed in checking my email on one of Sureshot's computers. Then I heard him quoting Robert A. Heinlein to the barista. "Moderation is for monks!" he was saying. Those are the kind of words that get my attention. "Hey, you sound like my type of person!" I called to him. And thus began what turned into a two-hour conversation with one of the most vibrant, truly ALIVE people I've met in ages.

Uncle Jake's mind moves so fast that I can barely keep up. It's not so much that he talks fast. It's more that he has a thousand stories and dimensions filling his mind at any given moment, and you've got to listen Magic Portal style to catch it all. Traveling the regular earth way just will not do. I tried to gather up every detail he told me about his life, though I know I'm forgetting many things. In no coherent order, here's what I learned: Uncle Jake is in his early sixties. He was raised a Quaker. He has a degree (I think a master's) in ethnomusicology. He once was the frequent angelic gifter of extra Grateful Dead tickets to fans who were "looking for a miracle". He is certified in midwifery (as everyone should be, he says). His sister is a veterinarian in Kenya, and he once stayed with her while studying the African origin of modern American music influences. He once ran a coffee house in Amsterdam, where marijuana was sold like cookies over the counter. He travels often, and he works on his own terms, in various jobs, in various places. He mentioned New Orleans, Portland, New York, Bulgaria, Colorado, Boston. He never learned to drive, but has taken trains all over the world. He used to travel with bands, doing all kinds of different work for them, but not for the band culture. It was the crew culture that interested him. He once had a house in Portland, and when it burned down, he lost 10,000 books. He was in the Navy. He chose to have a vasectomy at the age of seventeen. He's a chef. He's been hired to come to Seattle and shape up a failing restaurant. It's a good deed he's doing, too, because there's not much in this world that could make Uncle Jake stay somewhere damp and cold for the winter. In fact, this is the first winter he'll have experienced in thirty-two years. (His home base is Hawaii, and that's where he prefers to winter!)

As he told me all this, he kept pausing to say hello to other customers coming into Sureshot. He seems to know everyone, even though I don't think he's been in Seattle that long.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Uncle Jake's stories:

"I stopped aging because I saw no future in it."

"The two most important words in the English language are 'pay attention'. If you pay attention, the universe will give you what you need."

"I'm dangerous because I plant ideas in peoples' heads that aren't there, but that should have been."

An hour into our conversation, I asked him, "Do you write?" It was more of a rhetorical question. All Magic Portal Travelers are storytellers, this goes without saying. "Sure, I write," he said. "I write pulp. Not bodice rippers. I write absolute garbage and sell it to mystery magazines." It seemed to me that there are actually two types of writing Uncle Jake does, one for money, and one for himself. The latter sounds much darker, much more powerful. "When I write, I'm not fit for human company," he said. "Just stick a feeding tube in and leave me alone!" I imagined him holed up in a lighthouse when he said this, lightning and waves crashing all around, pen like a sorcerer's wand in his hands.

As I left Sureshot, I felt like I was flying on a magic carpet. That's how you feel after spending two hours talking to a Magic Portal Traveler. I think everyone I walked past could see the magic carpet, too. I saw more smiles along the Ave. than I normally do. The thing about Magic Portal Travelers is that their magic spreads out from them like ripples around a pebble in a pond, concentric circles reaching out to touch everything. When the day began, I was feeling pretty terrible, struggling with a lot of conflict and chaos in my heart. But after talking to Uncle Jake, my thoughts had left that two-dimensional prison and were soaring through purple clouds, looking for magic portals of my own.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Young Creatives

I have a student who is a snarky, forty-two-year-old philosopher-dreamer in a fifteen-year-old's body. This kid blows my mind. He's only lived in this country for a few years, yet his English writing is astounding. And I'm not talking formal SAT English. I'm talking CREATIVE WRITING.

I try out all sorts of writing assignments with this kid. I give him a list of ten vocabulary words and tell him to write a story. I make CD's of eclectic, wild, and magical music and have him pick ten songs to write about. I give him an envelope containing three random objects and tell him to link them together in a story plot. I email him links to James Jean and Salvador Dali paintings and instruct him to write a stream-of-consciousness piece inspired by his favorite images. I have him watch experimental silent short films and write his own ideas of what possible character dialogue might be. The results are always delightful. I can never guess at what he might write. Sometimes his characters are eerily beautiful aliens in some alternate reality. Other times they are assassins running lawless in Mexico. The one thing I can always count on is his sarcastic, perceptive humor. None of the moral assumptions in the world around us fool this kid. He sees through it all, and he likes to poke fun at it in his writing.

Lately he and I have been passing a story notebook back and forth. He keeps the notebook for a week and writes part of the story. Then he passes it to me, and I write the next part. The first notebook ended up being a science fiction story about an android boy and a crow-magic girl who get into all kinds of trouble while time traveling. Recently, we started a new story. I let him come up with the initial storyline this time. I was floored when I read it. The character he chose to create was a gambling-addict divorcee going through a mid-life crisis. I could not believe the kind of insight this fifteen-year-old kid had into the loneliness and patheticness of troubled adult life. He wrote about sad empty beer cans littering the divorcee's apartment, and about a ridiculous teacup dog the ex had left behind.

The only thing in his writing that reflects his young age: a certain breed of gory, video game violence. Oh, does this kid love video games!

If I have reached a point in my own life where I am capable of having a protege, this kid is it. I spend a lot of time selecting art, music, films, books, essays, and short stories to expose him to. I want the entire world of creative expression to be open to him, because I think he has one of the most beautiful minds I have ever encountered. I can only imagine what he'll be like as an adult if he is already so perceptive and creative at this young age. I daydream about a future moment when he accepts the Pulitzer Prize or ends up on Interpol's most wanted list for orchestrating some villainous computer hacking scheme that throws the entire digital world into beautiful chaos, and I can say with pride, "Yup, that's my student!"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

“Сорока” Magic

“I don’t roll that way,” Magpie says, and maybe he doesn’t know that those are simultaneously the most painful and most galvanizing words he could possibly say. Both a punch to the gut and a kick in the seat of the pants. Not a condemnation or a judgment. Instead, it’s an “I won’t go there with you” from someone I deeply respect and adore. So I have to part from him right away, because I fear I’ll either say something in defense that sounds mean, or that he’ll see the tears I feel threatening to wet my lashes.

The bus from downtown is of course late, as it always is. Ten minutes late, and I apathetically let the rain fall on my glasses, mixing with my own rain. I’m never overly embarrassed about crying in front of strangers. It’s only crying in front of a man that humiliates me.

The truth is my hunger comes from a void. It’s the same void that generates my distrust of men. How did it form? I cannot tell for sure. A twisted family heirloom of sorts? A thing that goes hand-in-hand with a writer’s spirit? Whatever, the source is not important. It’s the current situation it’s caused that I’m battling with now.

The bus is so crowded...standing room only. Terrible, terrible. I feel so raw, and here I am standing in front of so many pairs of probing eyes. And here in the back of the bus, they are all broken people... The ragamuffin teen dykes who ask me while rolling cigarettes, “Do you do brown?” The blue-collar workers just daring life to throw one more burden at them. I scowl out the window, my heart being pulled at all four corners by some medieval torture method. At one corner are Magpie’s beautiful eyelashes and mind, and at another, his disapproval. At the third corner is the temptation to destroy everything sacred in my world, and at the fourth, an intoxicating and sparkling enchantment that is bigger than me or Magpie or anyone I know.

Here is how the story always goes. I know it well, yet have lived it again and again, like Groundhog Day (the movie). I see a magic in men that actually isn’t there, and every time I see it, I believe I am capable of harnessing it. I am certain it will turn the void into something divine, something with the power to intoxicate my passion for all eternity. But the thing about men is they’re no more magical than any other creature on this earth. The delusion is in my perception. My eyes have rainbow cracks in them. Opal-luminescent snowflakes keep swirling across my vision.

I am standing sideways in the aisle, facing the seat where a Norwegian girl sits speaking heavy Nynorsk to her travel companion. Off to my left, a few seats back, a fat drunk Native American man is sitting with an equally fat white woman. Sitting on the floor in the aisle next to them is a scruffy teenage white boy. The drunk Native starts singing, quietly at first. “Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant...” The fault lines in my heart are threatening to quake, but I smile a little at his song. He sees my smile and starts singing louder. “OH COME YE OH COME YE TO BETHLEHEM...” Ah, I see. A lass scintillates most vibrantly when her heart is most conflicted. “COME AND ADORE HIM, CAN I GET YOUR PHONE NUMBER…” the Native sings. The fat white woman laughs. I smile and shake my head. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE,” the Native sings to me, still to the tune of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”. Across the aisle from him, a young construction worker is texting on an I-Phone. The Native’s singing causes him to look up, and when he sees me, he says in the most polite way, “Sorry, Miss, I didn’t see you were standing. Please, take my seat.” Scintillating, I tell you. “That’s okay,” I say. “I’ve been sitting all day, really.” Actually, I want to hug that construction worker and cry. Instead, I pull out my little notebook and attempt to write while standing.

I have been too terrified to tell anyone. Are you ready to be the first? No man on this earth can ever love me as much as I need to be loved, that’s my secret. Which is to say that there is no expression of love a man could show that would ever be enough to slay my doubt, my suspicion, my void. And so my hunger is infinite. And so I go looking for small scraps of love from every man who glows with any amount of magic at all, because no one man is capable of giving enough, and the void demands that I collect it however I must.

I make a thousand decisions—all of them conflicting—while the Native lights a cigarette right there on the bus. To stay, to go, to stay AND go, living a lie, a dichotomy, an ugly, ugly paradoxical life. I imagine warning my husband that I am a danger, “time-explosive” as he once said. I imagine giving him a sort of disclaimer. Leave me now before it’s too late. I will hurt you, destroy you, even. It is inevitable.

The white teen sitting in the aisle takes the cigarette away from the Native, snuffs it out with purple-gloved fingers. “You’re going back to jail,” the fat white woman warns the Native. The white teen digs through his backpack, takes out a bundle of sage, and lights it to get rid of cigarette smell. (Because Sound Transit will surely view lighting sage as less against the rules than lighting cigarettes?) I take out my library book on Russia, to have something sturdier to lean my notebook against. “RUSSIA!” the Native says. “WHAT’S HAPPENIN’ IN RUSSIA?” “Trouble,” I say. “WHAT KIND OF TROUBLE?” “Woman trouble,” I say, and he hoots with laughter...


Спасибо, Magpie. You are a beautiful friend. Maybe you didn’t mean to, but I think you saved my marriage tonight. I think you made me face all I have been afraid to face.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Taciturn Kids

I used to think I could only be intimidated by someone my age or older, but two of my Korean students have taught me otherwise. Not because they are aggressive or bigger than me, because they aren't. They aren't Tae Kwon Do blackbelts. They aren't demigods or magicians. They're just kids, but they intimidate me.

The reason why: They rarely speak. And apparently that's enough to intimidate a chatty person like me.

Student #1:

This little girl is my newest student. She just moved here from Korea last month, and is living with her aunt in order to attend an American school. She is twelve years old, with long wavy hair and huge glasses. Absolutely adorable!

When I first showed up to tutor her, her aunt warned me that the girl rarely speaks to anyone, in Korean or English. And boy, was her aunt right. When I asked the girl a question, she just stared blankly at me, which made ME feel stupid! (It gave me that feeling adults get when they make silly faces at a baby to try to make the baby laugh, but the baby just stares at them coldly, not the least bit amused.) At first, I thought that maybe this little girl didn’t understand any English at all. (You can never tell how much exposure kids have had to it in their schools back in Korea... some kids arrive here almost fluent, some know very little.) I had to find a creative way to assess her English comprehension. I tried to get her to read to me, but she wouldn’t. I tried writing down questions on paper, such as, “What is your name?” but she just stared at them blankly. After half an hour of nervous, incompetent fumbling, I pulled an intricately illustrated storybook out of my bag. “Where is the bear?” I asked her, opening it to a picture and putting the book in front of her. Immediately, she pointed at the bear in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. Aha! “Where is the chicken?” She found the chicken even faster. In this way, I quickly figured out that this little girl has a very advanced understanding of English. She’s just terrified of speaking.

I tutor her twice per week now, and we’ve gotten to a point where she is willing to read simple English words to me in a tiny mouse voice. We’ll see how it goes!

Student #2:

This boy is now seventeen years old, but I’ve tutored him since he was fourteen. He is tall, thin, and extremely intelligent, especially in math and science. His smile is not easily earned. When I first began tutoring him, his father asked me to try to find a way to reach his son. They had just moved here from South Korea, and what could make the usual social turbulence of a teenager’s life more challenging than throwing a new school, culture, and language into the mix? I came up with all these bright ideas of how I was going to reach this kid. I imagined him unfolding like a reluctant rose before my eyes, telling me all his secret fears and dreams.

Three years later, I’ve probably heard him speak an average five words per one-hour tutoring session. (Two of those words are “yes” and “no”.) I know next to nothing about him. I’m not even sure if the kid likes me. For all I know, he might hate me. He might think everything I say is lame and boring. When I say something to him, I pause and wait for a response that I’m not sure why I still expect. It rarely comes, and so I try to add more words, awkwardly trying to fill in the conversation’s holes bilaterally. The more I talk, the more inarticulate I sound. I can just see my credibility as a tutor going down the drain.

I still remember the first time I ever heard this kid laugh. It actually startled me, it was so unexpected. I had been his tutor for about six months, and was still feeling incredibly unconfident in the role. We were reading a book on Chief Joseph. I turned the page, and this picture was the first picture we saw:

All of a sudden, my student started laughing so hard he couldn’t stop. At first, I jumped in my seat. Then I smiled, because I was so happy to hear him laugh. When he could breathe again, I asked him why he was laughing. “His hair,” was the only thing my student said before turning to stone again.

There have only been two times this kid has voluntarily formed a complete sentence to speak to me. Both times the sentence was, “You spelled that wrong.” The first time, it was Governor Christine Gregoire’s last name I had misspelled. The second time, it was the word “seize”, which I had spelled “sieze”. (You know, “i before e except after c”.)

I have spent the past several months helping this student prepare for the English portion of the SAT. Though he still doesn’t talk very much, he does smile and laugh more often than he used to around me. Whereas I once wondered if he was emotionally cold or arrogant over perceived mental superiority, I now think that he’s probably just painfully shy, and that he copes with it by creating a cold and solid shell to hide behind. I am more curious now than ever to see where he goes with his life. He’ll finish high school this year and head off to college. I feel so proud of him, having watched his skills improve these past three years. I hope he’ll keep in touch with me, but I don’t expect it. Thankfully, his parents are much more outgoing than he is, and will surely keep me informed!

An Accidental Job

I’m still sometimes baffled by how I ended up with the job I have. I’m a private English tutor for Korean children, but I never intended to become one.

It came about indirectly. Back in 2004, I was a student at Shoreline Community College (best school I have ever attended, by the way). I also had a full-time job at a used bookstore, but I was still struggling to pay my tuition and bills. One of my classmates told me that it was easy to get a part-time job as a tutor on campus, so that’s what I ended up doing. I was assigned to tutor ESL. This was a strange experience for me, because most of the students I tutored were much older than me. I felt uncomfortable instructing people that I felt I should be deferring to based on age. But I soon grew to love the job. I made friends with people from countries all over the world. One of my favorites was a woman from Ethiopia. She often invited me to her house for wonderful dinners of njera flat bread with spicy chicken and lamb dishes. She gave me cinnamon-cardamom tea with a type of creamed Ethiopian honey that will NEVER be matched by anything I can find in this country. Her little children played at my feet while she told me about the special white dresses Ethiopian women wear to church. I have never met such a warm and sunny woman.

My other favorite woman was Korean. It’s hard for me to describe what it was about her that made me adore her, but something about her personality felt extraordinarily comfortable and trustworthy to me. Whenever I talked with her, I felt like I was with a family member, despite our different cultural backgrounds. After I had been tutoring her for several months, she asked me, “Do you tutor children?” I almost choked on the tea I was drinking. Though I thought children were cute and precious, they also made me incredibly nervous. I felt like they would somehow break if left in my care. I couldn’t imagine tutoring kids. Surely they would think I was boring. They wouldn’t listen to me and I’d end up frustrated and losing my patience with them. “No, I don’t tutor kids!” I told her.

This was the moment I learned about a unique skill Koreans possess. Koreans can talk anyone into doing anything. I don’t know how they do it. I think a Korean could talk me into donating BOTH of my kidneys, and probably my liver, too. It’s just something about the way they ask you… Their personalities are so sweet and generous that you don’t even realize when you actually want to say “no” to them. You don’t realize until both of your kidneys (and your liver) are gone! It’s not that they use some sort of trickery. It’s not intentional manipulation. It’s simply the genuine sweetness of their spirits that makes you say “yes”.

So a few weeks later, I was at her house, tutoring her daughter and son. At first I was terrified, but it went surprisingly well. I found that the kids actually had fun reading books with an adult. I also found that I could learn so much from teaching them. In part, this was because their mother gave me so much freedom with their curriculum. As long as they were practicing reading in English, she didn’t care what we read. So I found books for kids on African history, world religions, international labor rights issues, geography, and mythology. When the kids asked me questions that I didn’t know the answer to, I was inspired to go home and do more research.

The little girl was especially enthusiastic about asking questions and learning. She went to the library every week and checked out books on everything from the human circulatory system to airplanes. Her favorite author was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and she often told me facts about his life, which she had learned reading his biography. She insisted that I borrow her favorite books, so I ended up reading children’s literature that I would never have read on my own, such as Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie. I learned something very important from that. Adults shouldn't make the assignment of books a one-way street. Adults need to read the books that children assign, too. Education needs to be like a tennis lesson, with the ball bouncing back and forth between the coach and the student.

After I had tutored these twp kids for several months, I learned about another Korean skill. Networking. By some magic means that I still don't understand, all the other Korean moms in Shoreline soon had my phone number and were calling to ask me to tutor their kids. About this same time, I met the Korean man who is now my husband, and his family also introduced me to more families in need of tutoring. Soon I was able to quit my job at the bookstore (loved the books, but hated the retail aspect) in order to tutor full time. This is still my source of income as I try to figure out what to do for a future career. It is the perfect job to have while in transition. It can be tiring, but it is also so satisfying, in the sense that I feel like I am always doing something constructive. Nothing feels like a better use of time than helping kids soak up knowledge and develop passion for the world around them.

In the next couple of blog posts, I will write about some of my students, because they are all such fascinating kids. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kids and Politics

All the election season nonsense (attack ads, misinformation, corporate political funding, etc.) has made me want to try to think back to a time when I was 100% oblivious to politics. This made me think back to how I perceived politics and current events when I was a kid.

My first childhood political memory is of the Gulf War era. I was in second grade, and I remember boys in my class running around the playground chanting, "Saddam Hussein is so insane, Saddam Hussein is so insane!" I didn't know who Saddam Hussein was. I didn't know where Iraq was. The name "Kuwait" wasn't even in my vocabulary. I didn't understand why we were in a war, but I was certain we were the good guys. And I had a crush on one of the boys doing the chanting, so I laughed with all the other kids and pretended I knew what was going on.

My second political memory is of the 1992 presidential election. I didn't know anything about Bush, Perot, or Clinton. President Bush sounded very serious when he talked, so I thought he was probably no fun at all. Clinton reminded me of a gameshow host, so I didn't think people should trust him. Perot seemed like a normal enough guy, so when our teacher had us make election season art projects, I colored a big American flag and wrote "Vote for Ross Perot!" at the bottom. I think one of my parents still has that.

My third political memory is of the 1996 election. I was in sixth grade, and the election results didn't come in until after my bedtime. When I woke up for school the next morning, my mom had written "Clinton won" and drawn a big sad face on the white board in the kitchen. Though I wouldn't have told my mom, I was secretly happy that Bob Dole lost because I thought he seemed really lame.

That was the extent of my political awareness before I turned eighteen. I would love to know how my readers' childhood political memories compare.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Living With a Korean Family

I have lived with my husband's family for a little over two years now. The experience is much like being a foreign exchange student. Korean is the language spoken in this house. We eat Korean food and do things in traditional Korean ways. Shoes are never worn in the house. When someone leaves or comes home, everyone in the family goes to the door to bow to them.

I never know what kind of intriguing situation I'm going to wake up to or come home to in this house. My mother-in-law is an expert in the old ways of making pickled, dried, and fermented foods. She always has some project going on around the house, and she usually works on such projects in the early morning hours, before everyone else is awake. Typical things include: Wild plants spread out flat to dry in the living room. Long strands of kelp, picked from the coast, hanging to dry on racks in the back yard. The scents of sesame oil and fish broth wafting upstairs from the kitchen. Collanders filled with herbs placed over heater vents to aid in dehydration. Giant metal bowls for making kimchee on the kitchen floor.

Koreans often sit on a large cloth spread out on the kitchen floor to prepare large batches of food. This was surprising for me at first, coming from a background where food is prepared only on the countertop. But now I see the logic. There is just so much more SPACE on the floor! And those kimchee bowls are big enough to bathe children in!

Here is a photo of a typical Korean breakfast. At each place setting is a bowl of rice and a dish of soup made from radish greens, miso paste, and wild sesame seed (perilla) powder, one of my favorite Korean soups. In the communal center are the usual plethora of side dishes. (I always tell my mother-in-law that every Korean meal seems like Thanksgiving... Doing the dishes feels like doing Thanksgiving dishes, too!) The side dishes seen here are as follows, from top left to bottom right. Row one: Raw carrots and cabbage pieces to dip in sauce. Peanuts sauteed in soy sauce and sweet rice syrup. Radish kimchee. A dipping sauce made from soy sauce and red chili. Row two: Two types of seaweed salad, one made with kelp and cucumbers, the other made with a seaplant I don't know the name of and Korean radish strips. A dish of cucumber kimchee. Row three: A fish cake side dish and a mini-anchovy side dish, made from dried anchovies. A side dish made from the stems of some kind of plant that has horribly bitter leaves, but wonderfully tender and NON-bitter stems. (The stems are boiled and then covered in a sauce made with wild sesame powder. It is AMAZING.) Boiled and chilled kelp to be dipped in the soy sauce-chili mix:

Some kind of small ocean fish drying outside. This will probably be rehydrated throughout the winter for soups or side dishes:

Korean chives in my father-in-law's garden:

In the old days, Koreans buried kimchee jars underground to keep the kimchee cool and crisp after it had fermented. Now they have special kimchee refrigerators, like this one. The refrigerators keep kimchee at the most perfect temperature. I don't know how to explain the effect, but when kimchee is first taken out of the kimchee refrigerator, it has a perfect crispness that is so wonderful I want to roll in it! If a small dish of that same kimchee is placed in the regular refrigerator, it's just not the same:

A type of plant that we eat chopped up raw in summertime cold noodle dishes. I don't know what it is called in English. In Korean, it is called "minari". It is much like parsley or cilantro... very strong flavored and used primarily as a garnish:

I have no idea what this plant is called in English or Korean. It is a kind of sea plant, and when you bite into it, it is very salty. My mother-in-law says it has medicinal properties, but I'm not clear on what those are. She picked a ton of this stuff over the summer and spread it out to dry around the house. Once it was dry, she ground it up into a powder that she mixes with smoothies or a type of powdered drink mix made from bean powder:

Close-up of the seaplant:

Jars containing homemade fermented soybean paste, soy sauce, and chili paste. These are left outside in a cool spot year round. The more they ferment, the better they taste. On sunny days, their lids are removed so that the cloths under the lids can be exposed to the sun's UV rays. This kills any mold that might start to grow on the cloths:

WIld sesame (perilla) from the garden. The first time I tried the leaves of this plant, I was entirely unprepared for their strong flavor. To me, they tasted soapy, and I thought I hated them at first. Now I LOVE them! They are eaten raw with Korean barbecue, steamed with rice, or pickled:

Wild sesame leaves, pickled in a soy sauce mix. This jar is currently sitting outside our back door. I'm not sure how long it will be left there, but I do know that once these leaves are pickled, they last for at least a year, maybe longer:

You know fall has come to a Korean household when persimmons start being served. This is now my favorite fruit in the world. It has a different taste and texture at every stage of ripeness, each wonderful in its own way:

Dried fiddlehead fern shoots being rehydrated. My mother-in-law picks them in the spring and dries them all over the house on sheets of newspaper. She uses them throughout the year in a WONDERFUL spicy beef soup called Yook Gae Jang, which can also be ordered at many Korean restaurants:

One of the most fascinating things about living with people of a different culture is seeing how everyday things get used in different and often surprising ways. This goes for household objects and food ingredients. I've watched my husband dip spicy kimchee into a bowl of oatmeal. I've seen peanut butter paired with American cheese and tomatoes. His family has watched me dip rice cakes that are never supposed to be sweet into honey. We never fail to make each other's jaws drop.

Recently, my father-in-law made a fascinating contraption from an old cat litter bucket. I giggled when I saw it, because for me this was a very surprising use of something that once held cat litter:

What is that contraption? Why it's a Bean Sprouter! Small holes have been drilled into the bottom of the cat litter bucket. Yellow soy beans are placed inside. Water is poured over them several times per day. Excess water drains out the holes and into the tub below. The black cloth on top keeps light out. After several days, the beans sprout and are used in salads, soups, and side dishes. I eat them and giggle, thinking, "This came from a cat litter bucket!"

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fear Culture and the Media

One thing I had a LOT of time to contemplate while staying with my father was American TV. I haven’t watched TV in years, but my father watches it every day. On Sundays, he watches pro bull riding (the one thing I watched with him). On weekday evenings, it’s old Western TV series on Encore Westerns. (Imagine me studying at the kitchen table with cowboy rifles blasting in the background.) These are all shows my dad watched when he was a kid. His favorite one is "Have Gun, Will Travel", which has an awesome theme song. In fact, that song is now my phone’s ringtone, and every time I hear it, I miss my dad.

The shows he watches on Saturdays are the ones I think say the most about American culture. Topics include: Cajuns hunting alligators in Louisiana. Border patrol arresting illegal immigrants from Mexico. True crime stories. How to make guns. Drug lords of Mexico. And then there are the shows on terrorism. One show advertised for at least a week before it was aired. On the advertisements, a SCARY SENSATIONALIZED MEDIA VOICE kept saying “WHY IS BIN LADEN STILL ALIVE?” in between preview clips, over and over and over again. I felt like the words were drilling deep into the cochlea of my inner ear. I asked my dad, “Hey, Pa, don’t you think all these shows just fill people with excessive fear?” His response: “This stuff is real, Kid. People have to know.”

Me, standing in front of my dad’s TV screen.

A video from my dad’s collection:

Conclusion: Guns, ‘gators, the Wild West, and fear. That is the spirit of America. It can be seen in my own family:

(My father’s great-great grandfather.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Technical Difficulties!

Well, I wanted to make another Colorado post today, but my netbook's screen was cracked on the flight from Colorado to Seattle (entirely my fault), so I can't access my photo files right now. Lucky for me, I am married to a computer magician. He is supposed to help me remove my files from my now useless computer over the weekend. If all goes well, I'll get to make that post before Monday. Stay tuned!

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Parachute, Colorado is about two hours from the Utah border on I-70. Though it is only twenty minutes west of the town I grew up in, I never spent much time here when I was growing up. There was really no reason to. It was pretty much a photocopy of all the other towns in the area. Spending the past six weeks here has been my first real exposure to the town. It’s nothing extraordinary, but I have grown fond of it. The semi-desert scenery surrounding Parachute is stunning. The town residents are all so friendly. The Mexican cowboys are gorgeous!

I’ve made a list of the businesses to be found in “downtown” Parachute. On the north side of I-70: A school. Vance Johnson’s Outlaw Ribbs. El Tapatio Mexican restaurant. Hong’s Garden Chinese restaurant. A Lift-Up thrift store. A Mexican grocery store. Napa Auto Parts. A Subway. Two gas stations. A Mexican carneceria. A taco truck. A rest area. A Colorado souvenir shop with a teepee on the roof. A liquor store. On the south side of I-70: A liquor store. Two gas stations. A library. Town Hall. A fire station. A bar/cafe. True Value Hardware. Wendy’s. Pizza Hut. A motel where a lot of the Halliburton workers stay.

And that’s it for Parachute, except for some churches, an elementary school, all located out in the residential areas, and two Kum & Go’s. (Total, this town has six gas stations, one of which sells corn based ethanol. And with all the pickups and Halliburton trucks around here, none of the stations hurt for business.)

Here's a view of downtown Parachute, taken from nearby Battlement Mesa:

Here are some pictures of downtown Parachute:

Here are some photos from the Parachute rest stop. The flower shaped solar panels (awesome!!!!) generate all the rest stop's electricity.

The little town of Battlement Mesa lies a few miles southeast of Parachute. It has a grocery store, a recreation center, an Alpine Bank, and a bar/grill. Between Parachute and Battlement Mesa is a tiny cemetery, which I decided to visit yesterday. I am always fascinated by cemeteries, but I found this one to be especially interesting. The designs on the headstones really reflect the local culture. Here are some photos:

This one was my favorite:

This little grave was so sad. Only a tiny metal plaque and a concrete star:

This was one of the oldest headstones:

There were a couple of headstones that had Freemason symbols on them, but this one was the most fascinating:

This one made me feel really sad: