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-ExupĂ©ry, 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:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Nerding Out with Mr. (Ex-) Chairman

So I’ve spent the past several weeks falling in love with Alan Greenspan, liver spots and all. I blame it all on a certain green fedora’ed friend of mine. Three years ago, that friend and his girlfriend gave me a copy of Greenspan’s Age of Turbulence. I wasn’t sure how I felt about reading it at first, which is why it took me so long to get around to it. I assumed it would be a bunch of Neo-Con-Reaganomics-Objectivist propaganda. (Side note: I do actually have a great fondness for Ayn Rand and the Objectivists, despite many areas of disagreement. There was a time in my life when Ayn Rand gave me the exact kind of kick in the ass I needed, and I will thank her dead capitalist soul for it forever.)

I was surprised to find that Greenspan’s agenda is not what I assumed it would be. His focus is not on politics, but rather, on numbers. During his years as Federal Reserve chairman, his primary goal was to keep the American economy growing at a stable rate as it went through the natural ups and downs of the business cycle. If the economy grew too fast, inflation could get out of control. If it grew too slow, there was the risk of severe recession. Politicians from both parties always wanted the economy to grow at high speed, in order to bolster their political popularity. This political goal often clashed with the Fed’s desire to keep inflation down. Greenspan frequently bemoans the difficulties of trying to get a president to do what was best for the long-run health of the economy any time a re-election campaign was on the horizon.

Greenspan’s praise and criticism of the politicians he worked with is pretty bi-partisan. I never would have guessed that some of the presidents he enjoyed working with the most were Democrats, and that he often clashed with Republican presidents. Though Greenspan clearly states his party preferences in the book (he calls himself a Libertarian-Republican), he does acknowledge that free-market capitalism has its costs. He states that there is no one-size-fits all economic model for all cultures. Each country has to choose the right mix of growth and stability to suit its own needs. In the USA, we tend to make economic growth the priority. The drawbacks are increased risk and lowered stability for people who become unemployed. The benefit is that our economy is able to adjust to market changes rapidly and efficiently. In many western European countries, the emphasis is on stability and lowered risk. This makes life less stressful for the people, but it also places a handicap on the economy’s ability to adjust quickly to changing world markets. Each country decides on a different mix based on its cultural needs and domestic political situations.

It’s funny… I never expected that Alan Greenspan would become a political bridge between my father and me, but he has. As I read the book, I gave my father daily updates about what I was learning. Seeing things from Greenspan’s perspective opened both our minds. For the first time in a decade, we’ve managed to have some constructive political conversations. We’ve even agreed on some things.

Alan Greenspan, a family relationship counselor?!

I’d like to end this post with some quotes from the book that show a certain endearing side of Alan Greenspan’s personality:

1. “The concept of irrational exuberance came to me in the bathtub one morning as I was writing a speech. To this day, the bathtub is where I get many of my best ideas…Immersed in my bath, I’m as happy as Archimedes as I contemplate the world.” (Ha ha! I hope he has a rubber ducky and a shower cap!)

2. “It might not be everybody’s idea of a first-date conversation, but at the restaurant we ended up discussing monopolies. I told her I’d written an essay on the subject and invited her back to my apartment to read it.” (Dude, SCORE!)

3. “She always jokes that it took me three tries to propose to her, because I kept popping the question in Fedspeak, but that is not true. Actually I proposed five times—she missed a couple.” (Here, he’s talking about a marriage that occurred when he was seventy-one years old! Awwwwww! He and his wife were married by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. How cool is that?)

4. “As we strolled along one of the canals [of Venice], my inner economist finally got the better of me. I asked Andrea, ‘What is the value-added produced in this city?’” (This was on their honeymoon. A few paragraphs after this sentence, Greenspan comes to the conclusion that sometimes humans value things that don’t make economies grow rapidly, such as art or romantic ancient cities. This seems to be a striking, if somewhat reluctant, epiphany for Greenspan.)

A photo from the book of Greenspan with his wife:

Awwwwwwwwww! Aren't they adorable? One more thing about Alan Greenspan: He dated Barbara Walters in the seventies! Ha ha ha hahahahaha!