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The English-speaking ghost

On Friday I went to taekwondo, not as normal, but as part of a ‘camp’ for the younger students. This involved them staying overnight at the dojang, playing some games and then taking a midnight stroll up a nearby hill.

I Sabeomnim had asked me if I’d be a ghost, so, of course, I said Yes – although I didn’t really know what this would involve. And, come Friday night, I still didn’t know; nor did things become much clearer after she tried to explain it to me. I was supposed to do some sort of quiz with the youngsters. Standing in front of the forty or so young students, the half dozen or so older students there to help out and the half dozen or so masters and teachers didn’t make me feel very happy, so I played a bit stupid. Yoon Sabeomnim printed out some pictures of fruit and vehicles which I was supposed to use for said quiz.

I watched the young ‘uns play games for a bit – things like two people picking up a paper cup with a crisp-like thing in it, but only using one chopstick per person, the object being to eat the crisp-like thing without using their hands. Or like squeezing a balloon between two bodies, hugging tight enough to burst it. I assumed I would be taking my position centre stage at any moment.

But no. After the games, the students rested. Then the teachers and older students (including me) headed out to the hill. This was at about 1am. As we walked to the hill, the teenage boys asked me a load of questions and joked around. There was the obligatory, ‘Where you from?’ and lots of insults about people being ugly and/or stupid. One of the boys was my personal translator; I can’t remember his Korean name, but his English name was Pippin – as in the character from The Lord of the Rings. He spoke very good English, having lived in New York State for a few years while his parents were at university.

We got to the hill and Pippin and I were stationed near the park at the hill’s base. My job was to pose questions for the students as they passed on their way up. I was supposed to use the printouts, but, not realising this beforehand, I’d left them at the taekwondo hall. They had me try a question with the teachers and older kids, with Pippin providing translations; it went thusly:

It’s something you wear, but it’s not clothing.

The Koreans were stumped.

You wear it on your head.


It helps you to see.


I think someone did eventually guess that the answer was ‘glasses’ (which should be a ‘they’, not an ‘it’, but never mind), or maybe we told them, I can’t remember. ‘To wear glasses’, in Korean, uses a different verb than ‘to wear clothes’, so it was a bit tricky for them, but I think it was more of an age issue.

Eventually, after a long wait in the cold, the youngsters began to make their way, in small groups, towards us. They had to answer my riddles in order to pass further up the hill in pairs. I mostly kept the questions easy – ‘cherry’, ‘mountain’ etc. I did quite enjoy posing this one, though: It’s very, very big, but it looks very, very small; it’s very, very hot, but it doesn’t feel warm. I’ll tell you the answer later.

The kids seemed surprised to meet me and Pippin, and seemed to enjoy the challenge, and indeed the whole experience.

It took a long time for all the students to come through my checkpoint and to loop round and head back to the dojang. We were pretty frosty by the time we headed back. Once there everyone had ramyeon, aka ramen, aka pot noodles. I had some, too, though that turned out to be a mistake.

I’d brought some playing cards with me, so Pippin showed me how to play One Card – which I’m not sure I remember completely. It’s very popular with Korean kids. I tried showing him a game I learnt as Sevens.

When all the food stuff had been cleared away – including all the slops poured into a smallish container – the children were put to sleep (not in the veterinary sense) with relaxing music. All the older kids and most of the teachers then went out for food. The teens were left at a 24-hour Kimbap Cheonguk (‘Kimbap Heaven’), while the adults went to a grown up restaurant. Unfortunately, the place we went to wasn’t appropriate for some reason (don’t ask me why), so we ended up at a sundaeguk restaurant.

Sundae (pronounced ‘soon-deh’) is not a favourite of foreigners, but I’ve found it mostly quite edible. It’s chunky little discs of intestines, possibly with blood – it’s black, anyway. It’s very soft – or at least the good stuff is; one of my students back in Ansan once offered me a bit of offal that I had to spit out. ‘Guk’ means soup (in this context), and the sundaeguk also contained a lot of pork. As served, it’s pretty bland, but this restaurant had various condiments with which to spice it up. It was pretty good, but I wasn’t too hungry.

I didn’t talk too much with the Koreans – they were all speaking Korean. My master thanked me for my help, though, and said the kids had enjoyed the quiz.

I headed back to the dojang with the adults, picked up my bag and went home; the time was around 5am. I had no bedclothes with me, and what would be the point of staying at the dojang when I lived right across the road. I also didn’t want to get up at nine in the morning.

On the other hand I didn’t want to spend all Saturday in bed – I had cinema tickets to buy and a young lady to meet.

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