Fifteen minutes of fame on Gapado

If Jeju-do is an island in the middle of nowhere, then Gapado is an island slightly to the south of the middle of nowhere. A 20 minute boat ride south to be exact.
Colleen, who always knows what’s going on where, suggested Gapado was the place to be last weekend, with an island-wide festival featuring barley field walks, kite flying and “catching sea animals.” Count me in! Along with our friend Kim, we set off bright and early Saturday morning to catch the 9 a.m. ferry. Hellishly early for a Saturday, but what the heck, it was something different.
We drove to the southwest corner of the island, to the town of Moseulpo to catch the ferry. The terminal was packed with Jeju-ites headed to the small island, seemingly just a stone’s throw away. The sea was very choppy with a brisk head wind, making at least one passenger cling to the rail, with a greenish tinge under her white pancake makeup.
The ferry pulled in on the leeward side of the island, out of the wind, and we debarked via a set of steep steps notched into the concrete pier. No sissy handrail here. Gapado is maybe 20 acres total, with almost no trees and constant wind. The 200-some villagers have traditionally subsisted on fishing, but we were surprised to find that there were substantial fields of barley covering the gentle sloping stretches of land. The island offers spectacular views of Jeju, including the impressive dome-shaped San… and Mt. Halla. The Barley Festival marked the debut of a substantial push to increase tourism on the island, which in the past has catered almost exclusively to fishermen.

Father and son kite flying, with Sanbangsan looming in the background.

Father and son kite flying, with Sanbangsan looming in the background.

The new tourism effort was immediately seen in the wonderful, detailed murals painted on the walls of modest huts lining the main roads through town. There were murals depicting fishing, farming, and of course the hanyeo, the women divers for whom Jeju is famous. There is a community of these hardy women on Gapado. Just outside of town, there were brand new paved, stone wall-lined walking trails criss-crossing the barley fields and meeting up with a paved road that circumnavigates the entire island.

Murals pay tribute to the legendary hanyeo women free divers.

Murals pay tribute to the legendary hanyeo women free divers.

Over the course of a few hours we walked the entire island, despite the wind and cold, and the Korean paparazzi. Did I mention we were the ONLY foreigners on the island?
A highlight was watching a shaman and a kite master set aloft a string of what must have been a hundred small paper kites, all strung together. It was really beautiful to watch them undulating across the blue sky. What a great job to have!

The fellow in the spiky hat, left is a shaman. I don't know why he was flying kites.

The fellow in the spiky hat, left is a shaman. I don't know why he was flying kites.

It was at this point however, that we were literally mobbed with photographers, shouting at us to slow down, stand here, look this way, stop! It was funny, but weird. One of the photos, where we were told to wave our hand along the barley as we walked slowly, appeared in today’s local Jeju paper, and online. Not once did anyone ask for our names, but I’m sure their line was “foreigners happy dream of Gapado festival!” Who needs a name when you’ve got a stereotype?

Waygooks in the barley, as featured in local media.

Waygooks in the barley, as featured in local media.

One of the many beautiful murals that enhance a visit to Gapado.

One of the many beautiful murals that enhance a visit to Gapado.

When we arrived at the main festival area, one photographer who had been particularly pushy insisted on buying us beers. He sat with us while, it seemed, making sure everyone saw he was squiring the foreigners. He even got us festival hats and made us pose for photos holding Korean flags, and introduced us to the mayor of Moseulpo. For the record, at one festival I linked arms and did soju shots with the mayor of Jeju, so I am not without friends in high places.

There was no shortage of seafood-serving restaurants on the island, but since Colleen is a vegetarian, and none of us read Korean well enough to order off a menu (pathetic, I know), we caught the 4 p.m. ferry back to the mainland, or what now felt like the mainland. I would recommend a trip to Gapado, but it would be nicer in warmer weather, and with a picnic lunch. It would also be very photogenic in the fall, when they harvest all that beautiful barley.

Life is good for toddlers on Gapado

Life is good for toddlers on Gapado

A taste of Japan

I am in Fukuoka (Foo-koo-OH-kah), Japan as I write this, sent here to get a new visa stamp. That’s a long, ugly story that I won’t go into here. I’m on what is fondly known among foreign teachers in Korea as a “visa run.” How it works: fly to Fukuoka, being the closest port from Jeju, drop off your passport and new visa application at the Korean embassy, shop and eat in lovely Fukuoka for a day, pick up your passport with the shiny new visa stamp the next day, fly back to Korea.

I got here Sunday afternoon and dropped off my application at 9 this morning (Monday), so I’ve had all day to look around. I gotta say, it’s pretty cool here. Compared to Jeju, the sidewalks are wider and in better repair, traffic is quieter, with almost no honking and I haven’t been nearly run over at all. On Jeju crossing the street is always a life-threatening experience. Also the people are prettier and trendier, with amazing clothes and hair. Korea is very conservative by comparison, and no one really looks “different.” That’s especially true in provincial Jeju. Japan even has gay people! (Korea denies their existence.)

Japanese version of a gargoyle atop one of Fukuoka's many temples.

Japanese version of a gargoyle atop one of Fukuoka's many temples.

I’m staying in Hakata, which has a lovely canal system running through it, that actually has water in it. Jeju has several large but dry canals, apparently reserved for storm runoff. I got here via a fast, clean and efficient subway system, right from the airport. Jeju, being one big volcanic rock, has no subway system, just crazy bus and taxi drivers. This area boasts some of the most impressive shrines in Fukuoka, including one a stone’s throw from my hotel, the JBB Hakata. Two blocks in the other direction is a shrine that houses the largest wooden Buddha in Japan. (see photo.) I managed to get one photo, sans flash, before I was told “no photo!” Oops. He is 16 meters tall, which is nearly 50 feet. For such an amazing statue he was in a very unamazing space, like a Buddha-in-a-box.

The largest wooden Buddha in Japan.

The largest wooden Buddha in Japan.

After dropping off my passport this morning I went exploring on foot. It was a beautiful spring day, with the cherry blossoms straining to burst into bloom. The massive Cherry Blossom Festival officially starts next weekend, so they’ve probably been put on notice not to bust out early. I first went to Ohori Park, a lovely green space surrounding a lake. There is a land bridge cutting across the middle of the lake, with quaint arched bridges, pagodas, weeping willows and sweeping views of the city skyline. At one million plus population, Fukuoka is a major city with amazing architecture. After crossing the lake I explored the adjacent “ruins of Fukuoka Castle” grounds. There is no castle at all, but some massive stone walls, topped by a viewing platform with a 360 degree view of the city and environs. Like so many things in Asia, the “great wall” was built to keep out the Mongol horde. While the vegetation in the park is pruned with manic Japanese precision, there were also many homeless encampments lodged under trees and against the stone fort walls. I’ve always wondered by Jeju doesn’t have a homeless population, but it is alive and well in Japan. OK, one point for Korea.

Bikes sans rack outside a subway station. Not a one wasa locked up.

Bikes sans rack outside a subway station. Not a one was locked up.

After basking in the sun at the top of the “fort,” I took the subway back to Hakata for lunch and shopping. I brought very little money with me, and was relying totally on cash – no credit cards!! – so I had to really watch my spending. Everyone says Japan is more expensive than Korea, but that depends on what you buy. I would have loved to check out some pricey Japanese restaurants, or bought lots of souvenirs, but I stuck to browsing and buying food at convenience stores and cafes. And Hakata has some amazing shopping ops!

I got out of the subway at the Nakasu-Kawabata stop, which is right at a huge designer label, multi-story shopping center called “Eeny Meeny Miny Mo.” Really. I don’t know why. As I stepped into the elevator I realized I didn’t have my leather jacket. I had shed it earlier, as it was very warm out. I figured I must have either left it at the first subway stop when I was waiting for the train, or on the train. Crap. I had a quick lunch first, then went back to the subway station. A very kind man at the ticket booth managed to piece together what I was saying, and made a few phone calls, but no luck. He gave me a number to call and said to check later. Darn.

Another random tourist in Japan.

Another random tourist in Japan.

I went back to my hotel, where I told the receptionist my problem. She, like the toll booth guy, apologized for not speaking English. I apologized for not speaking Japanese. Bows were exchanged all around. But hey, if I haven’t learned Korean in 6 months it’s unlikely I’m going to learn Japanese for a 2-day trip. She understood what I wanted though, and very kindly called the lost and found. Again, no luck. When I came back to the hotel several hours later, she immediately went into pouty face mode, shaking her head sadly. I think she was more upset than I was. I’m bummed, but what can you do? At least it wasn’t my passport, camera or wallet! Some homeless person is probably strutting the streets in it right now. Oh well.

Some things need no translation.

Some things need no translation.

But back to the shopping. From my hotel I strolled across the grounds of the Kushida Shrine and directly into the Kawabata arcade, a covered shopping area that stretches for several blocks. If one had money to spend, there is plenty to buy, from beautiful silk kimonos and pottery to incense and handmade Japanese folk dolls. But of course, as in Korea, none of the clothes or shoes would fit me anyway. The kawabata arcade is bookended by Eeny Meeny Miny Mo on one end and Canal City on the other. Canal City is a sprawling, multi-story covered mall, with a man-made canal running through it. I watched as the fountains in the middle of the canal spurted in time to Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” Nearby a balloon clown entertained the crowd overlooking his canal-side platform.

She could be just a student...

She could be just a student...

After browsing through Canal City, I came out in what can only be called the red light district: blocks upon blocks of nothing but “gentlemen’s clubs,” with advertisements that left little to the imagination. I am very curious though, about the business labeled only with a British flag and “Diana.” What the??
I saw a lot of very pretty, skimpily dressed women in spike heels, but then, you see them everywhere. While in Korea there is a modesty code that is skirted (so to speak) by wearing black tights with hotpants, or a tank top under a plunging neckline, in Japan they let it all hang out. Not that there’s much to hang out….
I’ve heard about Japan all my life, as my parents lived there for several years while my dad was in the navy, and my middle brother was born there. It was kind of odd to finally be there, the last member of the Miller clan to do so, but it well worth the wait. I definitely want to come back and spend more time here.

It will be interesting to see how I feel about Jeju after seeing “the other side.”

Venice? Paris? Dublin? No, Fukuoka, Japan. A lovely city.

Venice? Paris? Dublin? No, Fukuoka, Japan. A lovely city.

Changes

It’s not enough that I moved to a foreign country and started a totally new career. Now, six months later, I’m starting another new job and moving again. Same country, and same career, but I hope a totally better situation. I will say this now that I am out of the range of EPIK retribution, but that program…leaves a lot to be desired. If you found this blog while searching for information about teaching English in Korea, particularly on Jeju Island (Jeju-do), be warned. It’s a crap shoot. Some people are very happy with their teaching gigs, others, like me, not so much. I can’t speak for how the program (English Program In Korea) is administered in other provinces, as Jeju is a “Self-Governing Province,” which means, they really are an island unto themselves. Jeju is the maverick of South Korea.

But frankly, I’m tired of fretting over the ineptitude and incompetence that are the hallmarks of Jeju EPIK, so let’s move one, as I intend to do. I am moving from being a talking parrot, clown and bad cop for classes of 30-plus kids, to being an actual teacher at a hagwon (after school private academy) for classes of less than 10 kids. Right now it looks like my biggest class is 6 kids. Since housing came with the EPIK job, changing jobs also means changing housing. I am the first foreign teacher my new school has had to find housing for, and I was trying to think positively, and visualize a nice, spacious apartment with a lovely view of beautiful Jeju Harbor, or maybe snow-covered Mt. Halla. At the very least, I was praying for something not on an alley with a view of the garbage cans. It’s an odd system here in that since the school is paying for your housing, they choose it; you don’t get a say in approving or rejecting. My school director said I could look on my own, but without being able to read the classified ads, that’s kind of difficult. There is no Craigslist! I had to be out of my EPIK apartment by Feb. 28th, and as the date approached I got increasingly nervous. Finally, last week he announced he had found my apartment. Oh joy!
Well….there are no garbage cans, but yeah, I am on the first floor, next to the front door and the driveway, of a really crappy ‘60s vintage apartment building. In a studio, with possibly the worst decorating scheme ever. The kitchen cabinets are dark turquoise, adjacent to a large wall covered with large, red poppy wallpaper. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement as he lay dying in a cheap Parisian hotel: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” I can so relate to his dark humor.

While that is pulling your eyeballs out of your head in one direction, the bathroom is vying for attention in the other direction. All the fixtures are dark maroon. But worst of all, the ONLY windows in the place are in an enclosed patio. They have bars on them and are all frosted glass. Poor Sammy. Not only forced to be an indoor cat, but now denied even a daily view of the outdoors. The only way to see daylight at all is to open the windows; which don’t have screens. In another month I might as well hang out a sign saying “mosquito bloodfest this way!” Wait, how do you say that in Korean? Basically, it’s like a basement apartment on Capitol Hill, without the Bohemian factor and good coffeeshops.

I moved in last Saturday, and on my second day I had a visit from my upstairs neighbor, who apparently has some mental issues. When I answered the door I noted her blouse was held together with one large, jaunty safety pin. She barged in and gestured “sleep” and pointed at the ceiling. I took this to mean she lived upstairs. She prattled on, while I tried to convey that I don’t speak Korean. Undeterred, she then began inspecting the place. I grabbed my phone to call my director, to see if he could tell what she wanted. When she opened my closet doors my limited Korean kicked in and I yelled “ANYEO!!ANYEO!!” which means “NO!” I got her out without further incident. Nice welcoming committee.

It was supposed to be a 5-10 minute walk to my new school, but I tried walking it the first day and could not find a route that was less than 20 minutes, half of that steeply uphill. There is no direct route or shortcut, as the neighborhood runs helter skelter across the hillside. That may not sound like much, but the summers here are intensely hot and humid. And I already know how bitterly cold the winters are.

So, it’s not the apartment of my dreams, but I am doing what I can to make it “mine.” I bought an area rug to cover the hideous beige linoleum, and am putting up posters to cover the poppies. I’m going to send home for curtains, as Korean draperies would only add to the gaudiness. My director agreed to buy a double bed, so Sammy and I are enjoying that, after 6 months in a single bed. I do have internet, although it’s not always reliable. And maybe it’s a good thing to not get too comfortable here. Korea is not my home and it never will be. This is just another stop on my road of life. I signed a one year contract which I will do my best to honor. After that, who knows. I have a craving lately for baklava…

Of schools, home and cheese

Yes, my blog entries are getting farther and farther apart. I guess that’s because as I settle in there aren’t as many “unusual” things to ponder. I mean, I’m used to nearly getting run over every day, eating unidentifiable objects perched between slender metal rods (aka chopsticks), bus radios blasting “n word” rap songs, and navigating the treacherous halls of public schools.

But, since I last wrote, I have quit my public school job, signed a contract with a private school (hagwon), went home for two weeks, started an online TESL course and enjoyed the first warm day of “spring” today – Feb. 12.

About school. I had been thinking of quitting for months, as the situation was not improving, and in fact could not. It’s just the nature of the public school system to be inept and inefficient. Some foreign teachers are able to cope with this because they have good co-teachers who support them and actually teach with them. Co-teachers are assigned to be just that, but in reality they are more like handlers or babysitters. Mine wasn’t even that. My original co-teacher was 8 months pregnant when I started in September, and she left after three weeks. I was then assigned to a teacher that I didn’t even teach with, and who spoke very little English. She would get so nervous talking to me that her neck would break out in red blotches. Poor thing. She was ill-equipped to deal with my demands of, oh, a real co-teacher, or cooperation from the other teachers. My original co-teacher finally returned the day before winter break, but it didn’t take long to see nothing was going to change, and I decided it was time to cut my losses and move on.

I found an after school academy that was looking to hire a second foreign English teacher, so the last day of winter camp I paid them another visit. I signed a contract for the same pay, with less work hours, 33/week versus 40, and far, far less students. I will be teaching classes of 6 to 8 (!) kids every day, up to six classes a day. And it is the same kids every day, so I can actually get to know them. That’s one of the worst things about the public school system – it’s just too many kids! My two schools were relatively small, but I still “saw” nearly 600 students a week. I learned the names of less than half a dozen.
I start that job the first of March. I have to complete six months with the EPIK program or pay back the $900 airfare they “loaned” me to get here. Feb. 28 is six months exactly.

Of course EPIK isn’t making it easy. They are giving me grief about my visa – it’s a long story. I’m sure it will work out. I also have to move, as EPIK is paying for my current housing. My new director is looking for a new place for me. Housing is also included with the new job. The only downside to teaching at a hagwon versus EPIK is less vacation time. I only get 10 days a year, five of which are on school closure days, and they really don’t want me to take the other five all at once, since there are only two teachers!

With that in mind, I used the two weeks worth of vacation I had accrued and went home. I have to mention I feel so fortunate to have a friend who did not hesitate when I asked her if she could watch Sammy for me. She immediately welcomed him into her home and spoiled him rotten. He never had it so good!
The flight was long, but it was great to see everyone again and be back in familiar territory! It’s hard to convey how isolating it is to not be able to converse with people, read store signs, or pick up a newspaper or book. Especially for a writer, it’s like being Helen Keller.
Food here is also a very foreign undertaking. Even if I could speak or read enough Korean to order, most of it I don’t want to eat anyway!

I visited family and friends, ate at my favorite fast food restaurant (Dick’s rocks!), drank buckets of really, really good coffee and gorged on homemade pumpkin pie, crab louie, grilled steak, burgers and microbrews. Thanks, Mom, Dad, Nancy and Six Arms. I also did a lot of clothes shopping, as I can’t buy clothes my size here, and I bought a lot of food items to bring back, like good coffee beans, a wide variety of spices, and pure gold – Tillamook cheddar cheese. Mmmm cheese. I had to buy another suitcase to haul my loot home in.

Surprisingly, I feel pretty good about being back. I have a really good group of friends here, more than I ever had back home. Being an ex-pat gives you an automatic community, one that understands what you are going through. At home I had to keep trying to explain what it was like “over there,” but here, they just know. It was nice to be welcomed back warmly, and I feel ready to take on whatever Korea dishes out. Bring it on. I’m sure I’ll retract that statement in my next blog post.

Also wanted to mention I have been doing some writing for Jeju Life, a fine, fine online publication run by one of my favorite people, Jim Saunders. There’s a link to it right over there – on the right side of this page.
And yes, today it was suddenly warm! Like shirtsleeves weather. I hiked to the top of a wooded hill near my house and soaked up the welcome sun – before it gets unbearably hot and sticky!

Hanna update

Forgive me for not posting this sooner, especially since it is good news.

The week after Christmas I was in the office at Hanna’s school when suddenly Hanna appeared – with her grandmother. Fortunately my co-teacher was there to translate. She explained that Hanna had been selected (for real this time) to receive a scholarship to attend after school academy classes. They were there to accept the funding and sign her up!

My co-teacher introduced us, and I was very polite and deferential to granny, as is proper Korean custom with elders. Of course part of me wanted to grab a broom and beat her — see how she likes it — but I decided charm was the better weapon. I made her a cup of coffee, then sat on the couch with Hanna, who looked very glad to see me. Then the biggest shock of all, granny went into a long speech, which my co-teacher summarized by saying granny was very grateful to me for the gifts, and for taking care of Hanna at school!  When we parted I took both her hands in mine and bent in a low bow. I am hoping that this may have thawed the cold war, and she will agree to let me see Hanna on weekends. I noticed that Hanna’s clothes were dirty and she was not wearing any of the things I got her.  But it was obvious that she loved her grandmother and was happy that we met.

The next day, even though she was not in the special winter camp classes, Hanna was at school. I was walking down the hall when I heard a high-pitched “MEEEELLERRR!!” and turned to see her running down the hall toward me. This time she was wearing the pink polka-dot sweater. I knelt down and she gave me a big, heart-melting hug. It seemed like having granny’s approval made it easier for her to open up to me.

I haven’t seen her since then, but I am looking forward to school starting in February, and continuing Project Hanna.

Cold has a new definition, and it’s in Korean

Technically the Korean word for “cold” is ch’an. Realistically, they don’ t know the meaning of the word. How else can the indoor temperatures of the school be explained. Sub Zero is a refrigerator brand, not a suitable classroom temperature!

Jeju is rigorously promoted by the tourism department as the “Hawaii of South Korea.” They should be sued for false advertising. It’s freezing here!!! But frigid outdoor temperatures I can live with. What is getting me down is the fact that indoor heating is viewed as an obscene luxury, a decadent desire of the weak, lazy and stupid, aka foreigners. REAL Koreans suck it up and shiver in solidarity. Like somehow, if we are ALL cold it’s alright.

Winter came quickly to this island in the middle of the Sea of Japan. Unfortunately the temperatures plummeted in mid-November, but the schools are not scheduled to turn on any heat until December, weather whims be damned. OK, so no heat, plummeting temperatures, insane enough, right? No. They, and by they I mean all Koreans, can’t live without fresh air. So no matter what the weather, they open doors and windows. Snow literally blows into the school building and scuds across the bare floors. In my apartment building the windows at either end of the hall are left open, creating a wind tunnel.

Oh yes – I forget to mention the wind, and commensurate wind chill factor. Between the cold coming down from Mt. Hallasan and the wind coming off the water, Jeju-si is one chilly place.

But back to the indoor situation. The teachers cope by huddling around propane- or kerosene-fired heaters (really safe), and using electric seat pads on their chairs. Everyone wears their coats and hats indoors. The schools recently installed ceiling-mounted (um,ever heard of heat rising?) heaters, but they are loathe to use them. “Too expensive.”

As I write this I am in the English lab, where I have cranked up the ceiling heater and am basking in the 68 degree room temperature. My co-teacher isn’t here today or I’m sure she would have made me turn it off and opened a window. I asked her why Koreans put up with the cold, and even open windows, but the question was so far beyond her ken that she couldn’t formulate a response. Like I said, cold is not in their vocabulary.

The schools are all built with a long hallway running the length of the building, with sliding windows on one side and classrooms on the other. All the classrooms have two sliding doors, one at the front of the room, one at the back. My students learned a new English phrase this morning: “Shut the door!” I finally had to lock one door – the one that blew frigid air onto my desk – so they all had to come in the back door. I assigned one kid to be the door monitor. Boy was he popular. I could use it as a punishment…

To make matters worse, it’s winter break so there is even less heat than usual. Korean students don’t go to school from September to June, then take a three month break. They start in March, go non-stop till mid-July, then break till September 1. Then they go till mid-December, and break for five weeks of Winter Break. Then they come back Feb. 1 for TWO WEEKS, and then it’s two weeks off for Spring Break. Yes, in February. March 1 is the start of the new school year. Still with me?

But, over these “breaks” the schools offer special classes they call “camps,” such as winter English camp. We Native English Speakers are still on the clock, and are expected to show up at school every day, whether we have English camp or not, and we are expected to stay for the full day even if our classes only run a few hours. The Korean teachers get the time off.
So, since it’s not “real” school, there seems to be no need to use “real” heat. I’ll leave the bathroom situation to your imagination. Let’s just say the schools do not offer heated toilet seats.

Later the same day
OK, I have to confess, after writing the above, I snuck out of school and went home. On the way out I strolled past the downstairs office to see if the Vice Principal was in (she wasn’t), and this one woman started excitedly gesturing at the ceiling heater, which, surprisingly, was on. I gestured that I had been in the English room (pointing to the ceiling, as it is on the 4th floor). She pointed at the heater again. I nodded, “yes, heat was on.” I don’t know if she was trying to tell me I could have turned the heat on, or was excited that I may have left it on, or was suggesting I join them in their heated space. I just smiled, nodded and left. I am now sitting in bed with the floor heat cranked up and a sleeping cat vying for lap space. And I don’t have the window open!

And so this is Christmas…

I first noticed Hanna when the first grade teacher made her stand in the back of the classroom for the entire 40 minute English lesson. It’s frustrating when they do that, as it is the only English class they get all week, and their only chance to speak a few words with me. Making students stand in the back, usually with their backs to the class, is a popular punishment.
The next class, there she was again. I noticed she was wearing the same ugly brown pants and brown shirt, and her hair was lank and uncombed; unusual, as most Korean children seem very well cared for, and the girls love their Hello Kitty gear.
But Hanna had none of those accoutrements of a girly childhood. After she had been standing for nearly half the class I asked the teacher how long she was supposed to stand there, and the teacher replied, “Only one minute.” I pointed out it had already been 20, and the teacher relented and told her to sit down. Her “crime” was probably fidgeting, or talking, in other words, acting like the 7-year-old child that she is.
That day the teacher let Hanna sit with us at lunch, and that’s when everything changed for me. This tiny child matter-of-factly pulled up her sleeve to reveal a series of five large bruises running from her wrist to her elbow. It was then I noticed that what I thought were smudges on her face were bruises. She chattered at the teacher for a few minutes, while the teacher just listened and nodded. I asked the teacher what she had said, and she related that Hanna lived with her grandmother, who was “very sick,” and that her grandmother sometimes got very angry and beat Hanna with a stick – but that afterwards she was always sorry. I was stunned.

Now I certainly know that children are abused, beaten, neglected and worse every day, all over the world, but somehow I felt this one was personal. Perhaps it was the fact that she was so stoic about it that broke my heart, but I felt a strong desire to protect this child. And so, I tried to find out what was being done for her, and what could be done. What I found was not heartening. After school I went to talk with the teacher, whose English skills fade in and out like a bad radio, and she told me that Hanna’s parents had divorced when Hanna was two, left her with her mother’s mother, and hadn’t seen her since. So number one, she is abandoned by her parents. And number two, granny’s “illness” is a mental disorder. So this little girl is living with her crazy granny, who is so poor the village built her a house last year, ala Habitat for Humanity.

The teacher said the school and authorities were aware of the situation and were “monitoring” it, but that Hanna did not want to leave her grandmother, and that “it wasn’t as bad as last year.” And so I learned the ugly truth about the Korean child welfare system. Under Confucian principles, the family is paramount. Keeping Hanna with her grandmother was the number one choice, as long as she was clinging to life. Basically the only way they can be parted is if granny dies, or is committed to a mental hospital.

Even if Hanna were taken away, the alternatives are not great. There is no foster family structure in Korea. In the rare instance when children are taken away from the family, they are put in an institution, like an orphanage. In some cases it is an orphanage. So which is the better of the bad choices – leaving her to live with the only family she has, and loves, although it means being neglected and beaten, or living with strangers in a cold institution?

So that’s where we left it for several weeks. I decided to make friends with her and watch for signs of abuse, and make sure they were reported. Every week she sat by me in the lunchroom, and I gave her and her friends cookies at the end of their meal. Every time, she would hold the cookie carefully in one hand while she finished eating, then carry it back to class with her. She waved it in her hand while she skipped down the hall. I imagined she was enjoying the envy of her classmates – for once.

Then three weeks ago when I made my classroom appearance, I nearly cried. She had a large bruise across her little nose, with black creeping under one eye. A large scratch on her neck showed above the flowered kerchief she often wore. Now I knew why she wore it. She had been beaten again. At lunch she pulled up her sleeve again to show another march of bruises inflicted on her thin arms. I imagined the stick hitting her arms as she tried to ward off the blows and protect her head. The teacher said Hanna had been late getting home from a birthday party on Saturday, and granny, in her concern, beat her.

Corporal punishment has only recently been banned in schools in Korea, and parents are free to beat their children – and wives – as they feel is necessary for discipline, but beating a 7-year-old for coming home late from a birthday party? That’s just abuse.

This time I flipped out and started emailing and calling anyone that I thought could help. In the end a social worker came to the school and talked with Hanna and the teacher, and took pictures of the abuse. She also told the school that the foreign teacher was very concerned and was thinking of calling the police. Apparently this got their attention and that’s why the social worker was called in. I was informed of this later, but the person just repeated what I had heard before: they were monitoring the situation. I pointed out that they were not going to the monitoring when granny hits her too hard and kills her. I’m sorry, I know this is not easy reading, so thank you for reading this far.

To her credit, the teacher sat down with me last week to tell me everything they had been doing for Hanna, including giving her baths at school and providing free lunches. The teacher has even bought her clothes, most of which granny refused to let her keep. She asked me what I thought should be done, and I told her Hanna needed to be taken out of that house. I suggested that she could live in the group home but still visit her grandmother on weekends, but that didn’t even seem to sink in.

Then I asked if I could take Hanna out on the weekends, to give granny a break and let Hanna have some fun. It would also give me a chance to take her clothes shopping! The teacher thought that was a great idea, and said she would ask granny. I was so excited I even asked a bright 5th grader girl at my other school is she could join us to act as translator. She was thrilled to be asked.

Unfortunately, the next Monday I was told that granny not only said no to the outing idea, she said “never.” Or however you say it in Korean, but “never” is what the teacher related. Hanna was to go to school and come straight home. Period. My heart sank. Plan B, I asked if I could buy Hanna some warm clothes and things that she could keep at school. Remember, Korean classrooms are COLD. It can be below freezing outside and the teachers will open the windows for “fresh air.” The kids cope by wearing full outdoor clothing – hats, scarves and bulky coats – in class. Except for Hanna, who wore only long-sleeved t-shirts and plastic shoes, often with no socks.

So, last weekend, with Christmas approaching, I went shopping for Hanna. I ran into one friend in a local department store, and when I told her about my mission she opened her wallet and insisted on contributing to the “Help Hanna” fund. In the end I got her a stocking cap and muffler set, a pair of pink, fluffy Hello Kitty slippers for school, a quilted pink sweater with a rabbit fur collar and big white polka dots, a new pencil case, crayons and a coloring book. Before I gave her the bag of goodies, I ceremoniously presented her with a card that said she  had been chosen as the “Christmas Child of 2008” by the “Waygook English Teachers Association (WETA) of Jeju.” There is of course no such group, but if there was she would definitely have been chosen. My plan was that the designation would make it not seem like “charity” in case granny found out.

When I gave her the gifts last Monday after school it was bitterly cold and snowing. We put the hat and scarf on her, then the sweater. Her smile just kept getting bigger and bigger as she saw more things in the bag. The teacher said she really liked the coloring book. Although she can hardly speak English, she gave out a very clear “thank you.” My eyes were not dry. The teacher barely got the sweater zipped up before she was running out the door to show her friends. You have probably looked at the photo by now, so you can see how adorable she is. Even without being a special case, she is just an exceptionally beautiful child.

An hour later the teacher emailed me the photo and said she had called granny to tell her about Hanna being “selected” by the foreign teachers’ association, and that granny had been “thankful.” While I was hoping Hanna could avoid any potential conflict by leaving the gifts at school — the last thing I wanted was for her to be punished for my actions – I doubt if she was willing to leave her warm and colorful new clothes at school after all.

That was last Monday, and now we are on winter break for six weeks. I hope and pray that lovely little Hanna will be safe during that time. That’s all I want for Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all my family and friends back home. I wish I were there with you.

hana