Of Kittens and Hagwons

Frankie the Cat, by Shauna Smith

Turning my iPod up as loud as I can stand, I’m ignoring everyone else in the staffroom. Realizing that both of my coworkers are staring at me with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, I start in surprise.

“Sabrina,” Kyung-Ha says, “is there a cat?”

Looking from my co-teachers to the cardboard box under Shauna’s desk and back again, I realize that the jig is up.

* * *

“No, Sabrina,” my mom says on the phone. “Don’t do this to me. No. No. No.”

Watching me make my overseas phone call, Shauna’s eyes are round and worried. Not wanting to be involved, Maria and Clare have gone home early. It’s just Shauna, Asia, Emile and me shifting and pacing in a loose huddle. Strangers are barely looking at us as they run up and down the stairs, going in and out of the batting cages.

She was so little!

Just under the steps, someone has laid out a newspaper. There’s a carton of milk and a spoon with just a dribble in it. Not paying the least bit of attention to the spoon or the milk is a tiny orange kitten, no bigger than a ball of yarn, meowing as loud as it can. With distorted K-pop music blaring at each carnival ride, glaring lights flashing and cheap fireworks going off the side of the pier, most people find it easy to ignore.

Before leaving Canada, I promised my mom I wouldn’t acquire any pets. She already has two cats and a dog and she heard a story about a girl who spent hundreds of dollars bringing a dog home from China. Under no circumstances am I to bring this cat home.

“Mom, it’s so small,” I say. “And I’m not bringing it home to you. Shauna’s bringing it home to her mom.”

My mom once nurtured a kitten back from near-death when the mother abandoned it, so I’m sure she can recommend a strategy for saving this one. She says that if we absolutely can’t find the mother, we should check out a pet store and find something called “kitten milk” and feed it slowly with an eye-dropper.

A girl working at the 7-11 generously donates an empty box to our cause and we find a taxi to take us to HomePlus: it’s after nine on a Tuesday and most pet stores are already closed. The kitten mews all through the ride and Emile tries to cover the sound with his own mewing.

Wondering briefly what the taxi driver thinks of foreigners who meow, I remember that my friend Yuri once told me that many Koreans don’t want pet cats because they are considered bad luck. This makes me worry that we won’t be able to find what we want, so I call Chris to see if he can do a Google search on what to feed unweaned kittens. He gives us a short list of ingredients and we head inside.

Feeding Frankie

We quickly learn that HomePlus is not equipped to deal with the rescue of abandoned street cats: there is no kitten milk. Buying the ingredients Chris suggests, Shauna and I wish our friends goodnight and head back to our apartment building. The kitten’s mews are frantic now, but this time neither of us bothers to try and cover the sound for the driver.

It turns out that taking care of a kitten this young isn’t that different from caring for a newborn baby. She needs to be fed every few hours and this presents both the challenge of uninterrupted sleep and going to work. We’ve never explicitly been told we can’t bring pets to school, but it doesn’t seem likely that the kitten, newly named Frankie, will be welcome.

Our office is a narrow room with desks lining the walls. Serving as an irritating obstacle course, a “craft” table and ten chairs fill the rest of the room, forcing seven teachers and the occasional student to navigate with flexibility and gentle pushing. Shauna brings Frankie in a cardboard box and tucks her under her desk without anyone noticing.

For the first part of the day, Shauna manages to time her feedings so that Frankie is asleep while she’s teaching. Once the kindergarteners go home though, she starts teaching her six hour stretch with no real break.

She tries to feed her in the short interval between classes, but it must not be enough because some time after I put my headphones on, Frankie wakes up hungry and probably unimpressed by her cardboard prison. When my coworkers ask if there’s a cat and I hear her mewing, I don’t see how I can deny it.

Asia with Frankie

Kyung-Ha and Helena take turns holding and petting Frankie, who fits comfortably in one hand. When Shauna walks in between classes, she stops, but everyone else coos over the kitten: it’s hard to dislike something so adorable.

For all the problems I have with my hagwon, this is probably the moment when I most appreciate our lack of clear communication. They comment that there is a cat, but no one tells Shauna to take Frankie home. They simply accept Shauna as a working cat-mother, bringing her baby to work when she can’t get a sitter and we simply accept their weirdly progressive views on cat-mother workplace policy.

Frankie in Canada

If you’re wondering how Frankie is doing, she’s all grown up and lives in Canada with Shauna!

Anyone else have experiences adopting pets abroad? How did it go?

Read about the great Teddy Bears vs Dinosaurs debate!

And follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

But Why?

We’ve just thrown a French-fry covered hot dog in the gutter and I’m not sure if we should be more ashamed by our wastefulness or our cultural insensitivity.

Eating street food on the same corner, in nice weather

“Do you want to walk to McDonalds?” I offer.

“No, it’s fine,” Shauna says, her face still contorted. “I think we should just go home.”

Ten Minutes Earlier

Following the smell of fried food through narrow streets we walk over a carpet of night club fliers and cards for call girls. It’s too cold to walk to McDonalds and we made a pact to eat more healthily. Also, the taxi stand is closer.

Stepping onto the sidewalk on the main road, the cold wind slices through our winter jackets. A middle-aged woman is manning a food stand right in front of us. She’s the only one still open.

Shauna pulls her blue pea coat tighter and turns to me, “I’ll be just a minute.”

The light and steam from the food cart make it seem like a warm place to stand, but as we move farther away from the protection of the buildings on the side street, my teeth are actually chattering. The woman is wearing a puffy jacket, a fleece headband and warm-looking gloves. She isn’t shivering.

Shauna points to the last hot-dog-on-a-stick, the kind battered in French fries, “Hot dog, juseyo.”

Not wanting to take my hands out of my pockets, I don’t choose anything.

The woman puts the hot dog into a vat of hot oil and lets it sit and warm up. She holds up a bottle of ketchup and Shauna nods, “Ney.”

She holds up a shaker and Shauna nods again, “Ney.”

Pulling the hot dog out of the oil, the woman wraps a napkin around the stick and pours toppings over the French fries. She hands it over with a quick, “Gamsahamnida.”

At the crosswalk, Shauna takes a bite, stops, and looks at me.

“The other thing she asked me. I didn’t know what it was so I just said yes,” she says, her mouth still full. She chews, then swallows. “It was sugar.”

She takes another bite as we cross the street. Sugar covers every bit of ketchup. Ketchup covers every bit of French fry. Chewing one slow bite at a time, Shauna swallows and stops again, “I can’t eat this.”

We look back at the woman. We ‘re the only ones on the street tonight besides the taxi drivers. Neither one of us wants her to see us throw the food away: we come here all the time.

Public trash bins are hard to find in South Korea so walking up past a phone booth, Shauna tosses the remains into the gutter.

“Sugar,” I say, coming to the question that all expats ask themselves at some point, “But, why?”

Read about other cultural miscommunications in English is Crazy, Full Stop

And follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

Or, learn more about Korean street food at Waegook Tom’s blog

Travel Blog Tuesday: Hercules Gets a Passport

When Marina and Kevin moved from the USA to England, they brought their four cats with them. They also started a blog about their travels called Hercules Gets a Passport

But this isn’t some weird niche blog about living with cats abroad.

This is a blog that makes me want to travel.

They blog about a style of travelling that I appreciate: less to-do lists, more doing stuff. I love wandering aimlessly, because you usually find something awesome that you weren’t expecting to find. Marina’s article Hercie’s Top Travel Tips celebrates this style of travel.

I keep hearing about friends travelling in the Middle East, but when I mention it at home, people look a bit worried. I’d like to cite this article as my proof that I’m not planning on going to a war zone. Trust me, trust Marina: people go there safely and have an awesome time.

The site also incorporates photography – a skill which I am somewhat lacking, although I really enjoy it. I particularly like the photos of Cerne Abbas and Durdle Door in this compilation of favourite photos they’ve taken around the UK.

Follow Marina: @MarinaLMaxwell

English is Crazy, Full Stop

Paul is from Yorkshire and sometimes I don’t really know what he’s talking about. I’ve spent most of my life under the mistaken assumption that because English is my first language, I have a really good handle on it. I even studied it in university. Living overseas has changed all that.

Today, he looks troubled, which is unusual for someone I usually see with a wide grin on his face. He walks into the staffroom, puts his teacher’s guide down, sits in the office chair across from me and stares intently into space. I look at him a moment and then turn back to my own desk and continue writing my lesson plan.

“What do you call a full stop?” he asks, looking at me.

“I don’t know,” I say, setting my pen down. Working together in Korea, these conversations come up once in awhile. He might get a text message from his Canadian girlfriend that I have to decipher. Or someone uses the phrase “fanny pack” causing confusion and hilarity: fanny does not mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic.

He picks out a textbook from the colourful row of them on the shelf and opens it on the desk beside me. He points to the end of a sentence.

“That,” he says. “What do you call that?”

“A period,” I say.

“Well, why do you call it that?” he says, glaring at me.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Why? What do you call it?”

Every English-speaking country seems to have their own version of the language. It means you can understand one another ninety percent of the time, but then it betrays you in places you never expected.

“Do you know,” he says, completely ignoring me, “that I’ve been telling the gifted class to use full stops for months? Every day when I look at their writing, I say, ‘You have to remember your full stops at the end of sentences.’”

He sits down in the chair next to me, shaking his head.

“Then, today, Jody puts up his hand and says, ‘Teacher, what is a full stop?’” The corner of my mouth is twitching. “For a month they’ve had no idea what I’m on about.

“Period,” he says, looking at me. “Stupid word.”

Read more about adventures with Paul in The Art of Getting Lost: Jeju Style

And follow me on Twitter! @SabrinaNemis

Travel Blog Tuesday: Stupid Ugly Foreigner

Travel Blog Tuesday: Stupid Ugly Foreigner

Michael is just as funny in person as he is in writing. But since he has a blog and not a radio show, you’ll have to read Stupid Ugly Foreigner, and take my word for it that he’s a great speaker, too.

Michael is an ESL teacher in Korea, was a real teacher in Canada and he’s a diverse and interesting blogger everywhere. I highly recommend his recent postThe Unpopped Personal Bubble, about personal space as a non-universal concept. And his post Adulthood: No One Told Me There Would be Laundrycaptures my own feelings almost perfectly.

Basically, he reflects on his experiences as an expat in Korea by capturing poignant details and presenting them with great wit.

As far as I know, Michael doesn’t use Twitter, but you can subscribe to his RSS feed or just bookmark it. It’ll be worth your while, guaranteed.

The Art of Getting Lost: Jeju-Style

We get a phone call around dinnertime from Robert’s dad. They want to know where we are. Actually, they want to know where they are, but they’ll settle for knowing our location and having something to work toward.

We’ve been expecting a call all day. Paul and Bob took off on rented scooters to the other side of Jeju Island, Korea, mid-morning, without taking down the name of our hotel or the city we’re staying in. They know we’re on the South coast, on the other side of the volcano, but that’s about it.


Robert and I wandered around all day. It’s October, but it still feels like summer. There aren’t many tourists around and we are free to walk without jostling old men or tripping over children. It’s been sunny all day and my skin is warm with a light sunburn.

It’s been the calmest day of our trip so far. Three days ago, we took the train – standing room only – from Seoul to Busan. Our two days there involved riding down the street on an office chair and a terrifying taxi ride backward down a freeway. Yesterday, we flew to Jeju hungover and tired.

* * *

At the Jeju airport, we get on a bus that drives around for half an hour before the driver makes us get off in the middle of a deserted residential area. Despite being on a street lined with homes and silver KIAs, there isn’t a sound to be heard.


It’s Chuseok, possibly the biggest holiday in Korea, and families gather from across the country to tend family graves and honour their ancestors. No one seems to have gathered in this neighbourhood. The only time we see anyone is when we find an open supermarket tucked back from the road. We buy ramen noodles and water and sit at a deserted playground to discuss what to do next.

We can see the sea shimmering down the road, just past the peaked roofs of the residential area. We decide to walk to the sea.

Two hours later, we’ve walked past the residential area, through some orange
groves and across a highway to finally get to what may be the ugliest beach in Korea. Jellyfish resembling globs of phlegm spot the beach and seaweed clogs the water. We wonder why we left Busan.

* * *

Today we are trying to give Bob and Paul directions to the hotel over the phone. Both of them arrived in Korea within the past seven days and neither one can read or speak Korean. Not as many people speak English on Jeju as they do in Seoul, and while there is English on street signs, it’s naturally less prominent than the Korean. They’re having a hard time finding the turn-off we suggested, and asking for directions seems impossibly complicated.

Robert and I sit on the hotel steps because the last sign they could read suggests that they aren’t far. We watch the sun set and the sky darkens. We’re waiting so we can all eat dinner together. We talk and try not to look at our watches. When Bob calls back, they’ve driven three cities past us. Robert and I decide to go to the 7-11 for some beer.

* * *

We sit on the ugly beach for an hour before hunger demands that we figure out what we’re doing for our next meal. We see an open convenience store and head toward it looking for water, food, and a taxi.


I’m fully focused on Family Mart and barely notice at first.


Two well-tanned foreign girls are sitting on blankets at the beach. And I know one of them.

Naomi’s hair is golden from living an island life that includes frequent afternoons of suntanning. We worked together in Canada and she’s been here a year already, teaching at a private school. She smiles wide and looks breathtakingly relaxed and happy.


We sit with the girls and sip beer as the late afternoon sun drops lower. Naomi recommends a bar and a pension on the South side of the island. While we’re making evening plans, an elderly Korean man comes up to offer us makgeoli, a Korean alcoholic rice drink.

The deserted neighbourhood around the beach comes alive as men, women and children gather for a Chuseok celebration. There are races, tug-of-wars, wrestling and soccer games. Paul loses a bottle race to some elderly Korean women, but wins a family pack of ramen as a consolation prize. He claims they cheated, but seems happy with his ramen.

By the time the sun sets, we have dinner plans and a great beer glow. As the families trickle back to their homes, we prepare to find a taxi to take us across the island to food and working showers.

* * *

After Bob hits Paul with his scooter, a Korean family with a pickup truck takes pity on them. The family leads them to a waterfall near our hotel.

It’s damp and dark when we all meet up again and you can hear the waterfall rushing nearby. It’s supposedly a site marked by a famous Chinese explorer.


We eat tuna sushi for dinner and listen to the saga of Bob and Paul crossing Halla Mountain and coming back again. Robert and I tell them about following a couple in hiking gear to a second, prettier waterfall this afternoon.

After dinner, we buy some beer and head to that waterfall. On the other side of a low fence, we find a spot to sit on the cliffs and watch the tide break against the rocky coast. Boats are out on the water, just barely visible in the darkness.

“Sabrina,” Paul says, turning to me, “Did I ever tell you I’m a geographer?”

Read more in Of Kittens and Hagwons

Follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

Alex Gould, Legend

“Stairs can’t stop me.”

I have never heard anything said with such indignant conviction. And I really wasn’t questioning the stairs’ motives. They weren’t acting against Alex in any way. No more than gravity was, a moment later.

If I have to lay blame, I’ll go with the half-finished mojito he was holding when we walked into N’s Pub that night. And although I didn’t personally see it, I’m told the two bottles of wine he drank earlier that evening may have had a hand in it as well.

If you’re going to nitpick, I suppose that Alex willingly consumed every bit of it himself. But it seems unfair to blame him.

Flying squirrels are not capable of powered flight like birds or bats. [Source: Wikipedia]

The flying squirrel costume added a sense of theatrics. The Korean passersby may even have believed it was part of a performance. He certainly stayed true to character.


He flew fully laid out, like a gymnast. He displayed extraordinary confidence by not raising either an arm or a hand to brace the landing. And he stuck the dismount without a wobble or a broken nose. Not many have caught falls with their faces so elegantly or with such style.

Miraculously, no bones were broken, no scratches raked across his face, and the costume was free from tears or stains. After a few minutes, grunts of consciousness kept us from undue worry. He stood by himself, if not happily, then triumphantly.

Alex had been right, after all. The stairs had not stopped him. If anything, they propelled him. Propelled him from “Alex Gould, The Man in the Costume” to “Alex Gould, Legend.”

Read more Alex Gould ridiculousness in Teddy Bears vs Dinosaurs

Follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis