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

Fighting the Cockroach Invasion

It was kinda like this one. But grosser.
Used under Creative Commons from Anil Jadhav

It’s the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen. Its black body and wriggling antennae jolt me out of the stupor of taking a two am pee.

I can’t scream. If I scream, it’ll scuttle away into my apartment and I might never see it again. But I’ll know it’s there, watching me.

I need to finish peeing and not make any sudden movements. Not taking my eyes off of it as I stand slowly and pull my pyjama bottoms back up, I watch it walk on the edge of my bookcase, just past the bathroom doorway.

Don’t judge me: half of those books were there when I moved in! The shoes are totally mine though

It must be aware of me, but contentedly moves its feelers about, possibly eating the press board at the back of my bookcase: apparently they eat everything. Pressing myself against the opposite side of the door frame, I move as fluidly as I can to get out of the bathroom.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen cockroaches in my apartment. From what I understand – and in Korea, this sometimes isn’t much – the building is infested. Before this, however, the sightings were rare and the bugs were tiny and yellowish.

Tonight though, this bug is as long as my thumb and looks capable of biting or procreating. Wanting to keep the biting and the procreating in my apartment to a minimum, something will have to be done.

Once through the doorway, I walk quickly toward the bottle of RAID that Michael, the teacher who lived here before me, thoughtfully left behind. I creep back to the cockroach, half-afraid it’ll be gone.

It isn’t.

I shudder, then aim the RAID and spray. The body drops to the ground, its legs moving wildly and I shriek once, but keep spraying. I don’t stop until its legs stop twitching.

Then it looked kinda like this. But grosser.
Used under Creative Commons from Eric Molina

Its overturned body appears half the size it did two minutes ago. Staring in disgust, I can’t bring myself to pick it up, not even with tissues. It could be playing dead. Hesitating, I leave the light on as I go back to bed.

Spending the rest of the night reading about the habits and life cycle of Asian cockroaches, I go back every twenty minutes to make sure it’s still there.

It is.

After the sun comes up, I finally fall asleep, exhausted. Letting it serve as a warning to others, I decide to leave the body there. Let all cockroaches know: if we’re going to share this apartment, they’d better be a lot better at hiding than this fool.

What kind of vermin have battled at home? Are you braver than me?

When not battling the creature in my apartment, I was relating to my foreign coworkers. Read more in English is Crazy: Full Stop

And follow me on Twitter!@SabrinaNemis

Lost and Found in the National Gallery

“Do you hear music?” she says and there it is, a faint choral sound. I can’t remember if I’ve ever heard music in a gallery before.

The Van Gogh: Up Close exhibit starts at three and we’ve lost my cousins. Looking around the gallery room Melissa and I wandered into, there are only strangers and security guards. Not knowing when or where I last saw Alain, Marc or Julianne, I’m not sure which direction to start in.

Parliament in Ottawa

“Where is it coming from?” Looking left, there’s a courtyard filled with trees and plants: the music is coming from that direction.

“Let’s go see,” she says. Following her into the courtyard, there’s a walkway around the plants, with doors leading off into different parts of the gallery. It’s my first time at the National Gallery of Canada and I want to look into each one. Instead, we follow the music.

In one of the doorways is a long blue hallway with a door at the end, on the left side. It’s open, but we can’t see through it. The floor ramps gently downward and we step forward. The music becomes distinct voices, singing Latin hymns. I stop. It sounds like choir practice.

“Are we allowed down here?” I whisper.

“The door’s open,” Melissa says and we continue creeping along.

Turning into the doorway at the end, we step into a church. Pillars reach up to vaulted ceilings and there’s an altar at the end, pushed against the far wall.

The pews are gone and standing in a circle are twelve black speakers, each playing a different type of voice. We drift into the centre, trying to look in all directions at once.

Also in the circle, closer to the altar, Marc, Alain and Julianne stand close together. Walking toward them, Marc smiles and says, “We knew you’d find us here eventually.”

How do you keep track of your fellow travelers while traveling (or do you)?

Read another story about getting lost in: The Art of Getting Lost: Jeju-Style

Follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

Finding Canadian Pride in Unlikely Places

I’m excited about being Canadian… really

“You’re not going to waste those on the kids are you?” Shauna says at school on Canada Day. Looking at the stack of temporary tattoos on my desk, I shrug. I was going to use them as rewards in my classes today, but I have ‘Canada’ pencils, too.

My students are always much more excited about Canada stuff than I am. They know about “ice” hockey, and that we have lots of snow, and that Kim Yuna’s coach is Canadian.

Shauna’s also more excited than me about our shared homeland, so I decide that if it’s important to her, I’ll save the tattoos. I stuff them in my purse to bring to the bar in Bupyeong later.

That night, wearing a t-shirt that says “Canadian Celebrity” and red shorts and shoes, I feel ready to pretend I’m excited about being from Canada, too. Setting aside a table at Underground, I put down the ‘Canada’ tattoos, a pair of kitchen scissors I’ll never see again, and a small cup of water.

“I’m not wearing a Canada tattoo,” Mike says when he arrives. He’s very proud to be American, and I see no reason to force anyone to wear a maple leaf on their face if they don’t want to. Others also seem hesitant, walking near the table, eyeing the tattoos, then moving on to the bathroom or the electronic dart board.

The first non-Canadians we convert are Kiwis wearing red shirts. Then South Africans join us. Soon, we’re all posing in front of a Canadian flag as J-Man, the bar owner turns on Canadian music: Joel Plaskett, Tragically Hip, Shania Twain, Justin Bieber.

More people arrive and the neat rectangular sheets of tattoos are cut into lopsided paper snowflakes. There’s a small crowd of people trying to find the perfect one to complement their outfits.

It’s unlike any Canada Day spent watching fireworks and slapping at mosquitoes in Timmins, Ontario. The bar is already out of Moosehead, the only Canadian beer I’ve ever seen in Korea. No big loss, in my opinion. The Littlest Hobo is projected onto the back wall of the bar and I explain to an Englishman what it is, if not why it’s playing. There’s barely room to move in between the waves of red and white clothing and tattoos. Even Mike has a maple leaf on his cheek now.

He’s proud to be Canadian!

A warm glow of beer-drinking (spreads) out through the bar, along with the tattoos, and so does a kind of pride in being Canadian. Never expecting to find it here, I’m even proud to sing every word of ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman.’

I’m happy I didn’t waste the tattoos on the kids, happy I came to Korea, and happy I’m Canadian. And although I’m not sure the Founding Fathers would approve, I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate Canada Day than in Korea, in a basement bar with friends from all over the world.

When have you felt most proud of your country when you were abroad?

Read about less happy travel experiences in Deok Jeok Oh! Oh, God, Ow

And follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

Teddy Bears vs Dinosaurs

Would you really take this man’s side?

The bus passes a billboard for a Teddy Bear museum featuring dinosaurs. Turning to Alex, I catch him just before he puts his headphones in. I wonder aloud what the deal is with Teddy Bear museums in Korea. They’re everywhere, from Seoul to Jeju and cover various time periods. Alex listens, resting his iPod on his leg, but not putting it away.

“Are they suggesting that Teddy Bears were there?” I say. Alex hasn’t said much during this rant, but I don’t feel like going to sleep and I don’t want to sit quietly for the next six hours as we drive through Sunday traffic to get back to Incheon. “Who do you think would have won in a battle between Teddy Bears and dinosaurs?”

Now he raises his eyebrows, “Obviously, it would have to be dinosaurs. Is that even a question?”

“But they can’t die,” I say. “Teddy Bears are like really cute zombies.”

“Sabrina, they can’t die because they’re not alive,” he says, but doesn’t pick up his MP3 player.

“You only think they aren’t alive because of the Teddy Bear Law,” I say. “They can’t let humans see them move. And there weren’t any people when dinosaurs were around.”

“I don’t think there were any Teddy Bears around, either.”

“I don’t know, that billboard seems to show differently,” he picks up his iPod at this and starts flipping through songs.

Teddy Bears are badass.

“Dinosaurs are bigger and stronger.”

“But Teddy Bears can’t die.”

“Because they’re not alive,” he says, putting one headphone in. “And even if they were, they’re not big enough to fight dinosaurs.”

“But they could create a Teddy Bear army. Sew themselves back together when they get ripped apart. Even a big dinosaur couldn’t fight off an endless horde.”

“I don’t think you understand how big dinosaurs are, Sabrina.”

Mike walks up the aisle, stepping over stray bags and feet.

“What are you talking about?” he asks, leaning against the seat in front of us.

“Whether Teddy Bears or dinosaurs would win in an epic battle,” I say.

“It has to be dinosaurs, right?” he says, looking from one of us to the other.

“Exactly,” Alex says.

“But Teddy Bears can’t die,” I start.

Mike raises an eyebrow, nods, then stands and walks back up the bus.

What do you think? Teddy Bears vs Dinosaurs: who would win?

Read more about adventures with Alex in Happy Children’s Day: Part Two

And follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

Travel Blog Tuesday: Chicken Chunk & the traveller

She was internet-attacked by cyclists and she once stuck chewed gum on the face of a man she was trying to pick up.

I only recently discovered Lindsay Hogg’s blogs, but I already want to buy her a beer. And not light lager, either. Good beer.

Chicken Chunk is mainly cartoons, while the traveller features stories, photos and travel tips.

She’s funny, unapologetic (especially to those cyclists) and she loves wine. Read her websites, follow her on Twitter and make the time you waste reading blogs at your desk worthwhile.

The Giant Blue Balloon

With the Giant Blue Balloon

Marcelle, Shauna and I are walking together without talking, texting furiously and reading and texting again. Where is everyone? In the Park, still on line two, still on the number one, still sitting in Goose Goose, still somewhere, not answering.

Jill and Asia arrive and we’re surrounded by hipster students and English teaching foreigners wearing skinny jeans and short skirts, tight, flowing, multicoloured arrays of sleek, shiny black to blinding electric yellow and gold mesh, leather, latex, denim, spandex.

I can’t believe I met Jill only a week ago and already we’re hugging and posing for photos like we’re old friends, talking about how we’ll miss one another when she heads back to the States next week.

We’re making summer plans with Asia, the girl who was just a name I hadn’t yet deleted from my phone two weeks ago. She’s smiling and talking to Marcelle by the mojito man and I’m glad it’s such a beautiful, clear spring night.

* * *

On a rainy evening two weeks before, a phone call interrupts the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

“Hi, is this Sabrina?” she asks.


“Could you do me a favour?”

The name on my cell phone screen is ‘Asia’ and I kind of remember who that is. Her number’s been in my phone since we met in a bar last winter and we both promised to hang out. It’s the middle of May, and it’s the first time either of us has called.

Asia says her friend arrived from the U.S. tonight and she’s lost somewhere in Incheon. Her friend has an American cell phone with her, but Asia’s phone won’t call internationally. She wants me to call her friend using Skype.

Typing the phone number into a word document on my laptop, I realize there’s no name to go with this phone number and Asia hangs up before I can ask. The sky outside my apartment is grey and dark.

Paranoid that I’ll type the wrong number in and call a random American at 5am, I cringe, hoping for the best, “Um, hi, is this Asia’s friend?”

Not knowing the person you’re calling’s name turns out not to be important. Asia’s friend tries explaining where she is as the rain starts pouring down on the roof of the supermarket next door.

“The sign says ‘Ganseok Market’ and there’s a Face Shop right here,” she says. Ganseok has a few entrances and Face Shops are everywhere. A Korean couple is helping her, speaking slowly in the background, and she repeats their words back to me.

“Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong,” she says a few times for me. I type this out on my computer in English letters. Reading the location over a few times, I don’t know, at first, what it means.

Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong.

Gunsock shechong

Ganseok si-jang.


The name of the market.

In Korean.

I call Asia back and report what I’ve found out, even telling her about the Face Shop.

“I think I know where she is,” Asia says and I wonder if I’ll ever hear from her again.

* * *

Tonight we’re with a group of foreigners from Incheon drinking sojitos, mojitos and other mixed drinks and then we’re in the club drinking buckets of vodka lemonade. We’re dancing, laughing, hugging for hours and then we’re outside, warm without the hot stickiness of summer.

Jill, Asia, Shauna, Marcelle and I arrive in a more deserted version of The Park. Arms are linked together in an act of friendship and to hold one another up.

Shauna is suddenly holding a giant blue balloon.

“Where did you get the balloon?” we ask Shauna and she bounces it in the air.

“It just appeared,” she says, smiling. We all nod and laugh and dance with the balloon and each other.

Read more expat adventures in English is Crazy, Full Stop

And follow me on Twitter @SabrinaNemis

Deok Jeok Oh! Oh, God, Ow!

daytime view from the pension

Looking around at all the smiling, happy drunk people, I suddenly hate all of them. The fire is hot with a large crowd gathering around it. People roast hot dogs and pass out beer. I’ve been up since 5am and I’ve had enough, so I get up and leave.

Away from the warm fire, stumbling across the sand in flip-flops, I barely look at the stars that can’t be seen from my apartment in the city. Shaking sand off my feet as gnarling, twisting pine branches loom overhead, small groups of foreigners walk by with open beer cans. They smile and greet me. I nod and keep walking. The pension is at the end of the street.

The light in our pension room is on. The couple, Sarah and Ben, are there. Stopping to glare at the lit window, I hope they have their clothes on because I have to use the bathroom and I’m not going back to the beach.

Walking to the back of the pension, I climb the outdoor staircase to our fourth floor room. It smells like goat. The goat is invisible in the darkness, but its smell lingers as strongly as the smell of pine needles all over Deok-Jeok-Do. Waves of nausea fight with the urge to pee.

On the last flight of stairs a flip-flop slips out from under my foot and my body pitches forward, my left kneecap catching the metal corner.

“Fuck! Oh, god! Oh my fucking god!”

My beach bag falls, and my towel and sunscreen spill out. Cradling my knee on the landing, no one comes to check on me. Gathering up my bag after almost pissing myself in the fall, I need to walk up the rest of the stairs. I don’t know if I’m going to make it to the toilet.

Slowly, carefully, I limp up the steps to my room. If anyone gets in my way, I plan to throw them down the stairs and leave them to die.

I slam the door open, throw the bag down and stomp into the bathroom. Giving them time to put clothes on, I wash dirt and tears off my face. Bright red blood trickles down from my knee to my shin.

“Hello?” Ben says.

Sarah and Ben stare at me as I step out with blood still dripping and smelling of the beer I’ve been drinking since seven o’clock this morning. Fully clothed, they look at each other.

“Do you have a bandage?”

They glance at each other again and Sarah digs one out of her bag.

Tell me about your traveling injuries!

Read another story: Happy Children’s Day! Part 2

And follow me on Twitter: @SabrinaNemis

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