Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Love motel review: Daegu’s Green Motel

Daegu's green motel
blue dot
Mar 12 2018

Daegu’s Green Motel is an institution.

I concede it may not be an institution to everyone. Or even to many people. But, for those waegukin who have learned by word of mouth that it is the place to stay when you’re in Daegu – for those people, it is an institution.

I have been going to the Green for nine years. In my first year in Korea, when I lived in neighboring Gumi, it was where all my TaLK friends and I would gather to start our weekend nights in Daegu. And sometimes those nights started late because we were all in someone’s tiny motel room, drinking and talking; for among its good points, the Green has always been tolerant of foreigners, although I’m tempted to add the adverb “wearily”. Later, when I actually lived in Daegu, I still sometimes stayed there, even though a taxi ride home was cheaper. Admittedly, a lot of people thought that was weird. My logic was that sometimes it was nice to check in to the Green before starting a night out; to know that whenever or however the evening ended, I would have a bed to fall into, in the heart of Daegu’s downtown.

Of course, that was back in the days when I believed an evening out in Daegu might offer some hope of something other than what it always became – a descent into one of Dante’s infernos, a spiraling peepshow of the excesses and horrors strewn, often literally, across the alleys of Dongseongro by the cast of English teachers and American GIs who, at that time, seemed to dominate Daegu’s downtown on a Saturday night, in drunken volume if not strictly in numbers. God, that one time I got stuck in a place where a bunch of Americans, all of whom would, no doubt, one day vote for Trump, were line dancing

But Daegu’s changed. At least it seemed that way to me, last time I was there. It seemed more cosmopolitan, less obviously the conservative heart of Korea. And there were less foreigners than I remembered; a lot of the English teachers have gone home.  Or at least there are a lot less of those first year, gap year, partying types than there once were (and who, admittedly, I once was myself). Those types find it harder to get a job here than they once did. (By way of parenthetical illustration, a friend of mine did a presentation at the most recent EPIK orientation, and afterwards he was stunned – he recommended a specific book on teaching methodology to them, and afterwards a bunch came up to him to talk about it. They’d already read it, in preparation for teaching in Korea…! Wow.)

What follows will probably be even more tangential than what I usually write on here, and I might drift a fair way from talking about the Green Motel. This is, I think, about how things change and things stay the same. It’s been two years since I’ve updated this blog, and I probably owe an explanation for that. And I have a few things to say. A lot of things change, and some things stay the same – and the Green is one of those things that, god keep it, never changes. I hope it never does.


I’m in my fourth year as a university teacher now**It took me about six months to get this post into a state where I felt OK with publishing it. Getting back on the horse, and all that. So some time references in what follows are confused. I’m now in my fifth year. (and my second year as head teacher, which is definitely one of the reasons I don’t update this blog like I used to.)  Most of the elementary school kids I used to teach are now in high school. Once, there were a lot who stayed in touch with me, sending me Kakao messages saying “Teacher, I miss you!”, or “Teacher, I am eating chicken. Do you like chicken?” But these days there are only two I still hear from. And that’s as it should be; there’s no particular reason why any of them, so many years later, should want to talk to the foreigner who once taught them English in elementary school. They drop off over time, and when they do I let them go, because that’s one of the rules I have for myself in navigating the sometimes uncomfortable bounds of teacher-student relationships in Korea. But a great Korean teacher I once knew told me, “Teachers miss students more than students miss teachers.” And I do miss the ones who fall away. They were such great kids (at least, the ones I gave my Kakao id to were).

But the two who still keep in touch are special. Perhaps not coincidentally, they both credit me with having some permanent impact on their lives, which is nice.

One is from my first year in Korea – that was 2009, folks, and when I taught her, she was in the second and third grades. She was a super-smart girl and I don’t believe I taught her a word of English she didn’t already know. As I recall, most of the help went the other way – she would explain to the other students the rules of whatever dreadful game I was trying to get them to play (I didn’t really know much about teaching, back then). So whatever help I gave her, it wasn’t with English.

At that time she was condemned to a life where she learned English at a dreadful local hagwon which, as its main teaching technique, had her memorize and recite entire children’s books from cover to cover. And so she devoted herself to memorizing these books, and liked to recite them to me. Because she was really smart, and she needed to prove that, even though nobody around her ever particularly liked her for being so much smarter than them.

So all I ever really did for her was talk to her, and give her a chance to use her English, and recognise in her that what she most needed was for someone to acknowledge and appreciate how bright she was.

At my final class with her, I wanted to tell her that it would be OK; that it was fine to be the smartest kid. That even if it was crappy now, her life would one day be better for it. But, as smart as she was, she was still only a third grader, so her supply of English was limited. So what I came up with was this:

“You’re smart. It’s OK to be smart. Smart is good.”

I don’t talk to her that often these days; maybe a couple of times a year. But she now goes to a Meister High School, which is a highly selective specialist high school sponsored, in her case, by Samsung; after graduation, the students at these schools can walk directly into the sort of corporate job which occupies such a place in the Korean Dream. After two years of working, they then go to university, before returning, theoretically, to the fast track for success. At this school she learns about circuit board design and other things useful for a job at Korea’s most famous company. In other words, she’s still smart as hell. I might have wished a different dream for her, but I’m proud of her just the same.

She hasn’t changed much. She still needs that recognition; last year she sent me her TOEIC results, which were the fourth highest in her very selective school. Oh, and a couple of years ago, she told me one of the things she remembers most about me:

She didn’t remember it quite like I’d intended it, but she did remember it. Maybe it was the intensity with which I said it. But I made a correct teaching choice, there. Sometimes as a teacher, you’re just the right person for that student at that time.

The other thing she told me last time I talked to her was that she was preparing her English essay for her Samsung application. And in it, she was telling the story of her and me, and how we had stayed in touch.**And a few weeks ago, she message me to tell me she’d passed her interview, and was off to work for Samsung when she graduates. Remember me when you run the country, kid.

This is why I have no patience with people who come here and don’t take the teaching seriously. But, as I said, there are less of those these days.

The other student from those days whom I still talk to wouldn’t do nearly so well on a TOEIC test. In fact, she tells me, she doesn’t do all that well at Korean high school English.

My response is always the same. “Why not? I don’t understand.” And she sighs.

The reason I don’t understand is that, actually, I talk to her all the time. And her English is fantastic. Fluent, slangy, with great vocabulary and knowledge of English expressions, and a good feel for the connotations of words and phrases. In particular, in her teenage way, she can convey both “impatience” and “sarcasm” very well. “I’m sure your English is better than your teachers,” I tell her, but she doesn’t believe me. But I’ve met plenty of Korean high school English teachers, and most of them struggle to converse in English with any sort of fluency.

But, of course, I do understand. Her less than perfect scores in Korean high school English say a lot more about Korean high school English than they do about her. She’s one of those rare people with the right personality – sociable, confident, and with a strong desire to communicate – as well as some innate quality that allows for being able to learn a language, through practice and use, in the way a child does, into adulthood. I’m jealous. But she struggles with studying complex English grammar and deciphering impenetrable blocks of English text. So, while her spoken English is fluent, she doesn’t do especially well on Suneung practice tests.

I was her teacher when she was in the 5th and 6th grades, and again, I can’t in retrospect see anything I did that was particularly amazing as a teacher. But she says that she was never interested in learning English until she met me. My memory of her then is that she was an incredibly sweet, good-natured and friendly kid who was always keen to talk with me. And so, when I saw her in the school corridors and in the playground, I was always happy to spend a few minutes chatting with her, too, while she practiced her English on me. And I guess that was what she needed; she needed to see some purpose to learning a foreign language; to see that you could use it to communicate with people, not just to pass tests.

When I left that school, there were a lot of students who contacted me for a while. But after a year or two, most of them stopped. She didn’t. As she got older, her English got better; there were more things we could talk about. An amazing thing happened; instead of drifting apart, we have become closer over the years. And even today, six years later, we still talk pretty regularly.

Part of that is just her personality. As I said, one of the things that I remember most about her is her friendliness and desire to communicate. That hasn’t changed; she still likes to communicate, and she has an amazing social intelligence. These days she’s president of her high school class and seems to be navigating high school life with a confidence that is certainly beyond anything I ever managed, back in my own high school days. She’s at the point now where she’s thinking about what she wants to study at university, and she’s hoping to study a language. Not English, she says, because there are too many people in Korea who study that. She also speaks Chinese and some Italian, so she might study one of those.

Of course, she has changed a lot, too. I said that as a kid she was incredibly sweet; nowadays, she’s still charming, but also has plenty of teenage cynicism and snark. And she tells me educational stories about Korean high school life. I’ve never taught Korean high school, and so I’ve always bought into the popular image of studious, overworked kids studying until midnight. But – and this probably shouldn’t be surprising – all the stuff that goes on at Western high schools goes on at Korean high schools, too. (I’d love to tell you her story of her disastrous school excursion to Jeju-do. It’ a great story! But it’s not mine to tell.)

The point of all this is that the reason I was back in Daegu and staying at the Green Motel was the fulfillment of a long delayed promise to come back and see that student. So, you see, it wasn’t a totally random tangent.


Why is The Green such an institution? Let’s be honest: it’s not the decor. It’s the location. That, and the price: in the nine years I’ve been going there, the price hasn’t changed: ₩30,000 on a weekend night*. In the case of the Green, inflation and the Green’s own descent into disrepair have maintained a perfect harmony.*It used to be ₩25,000 on a weeknight, but I haven’t been there in a long time on a weeknight, so I’m not sure if it still is.

The Green is in the heart of Daegu’s downtown. The Green, of course, is also hidden in a rat’s nest of alleys inside the already rat’s-nesty Daegu downtown. So you are unlikely to ever stumble across it.

A note on Daegu’s downtown, here. Daegu’s Dongseong-ro district is a dense cluster of identical-looking streets with few landmarks except various notorious bars. All the streets are seemingly slightly askew of each other. This inevitably leads to confusion: you will think you know where you are, and that you just need to shot-cut through this one alley, only to find yourself completely turned around, with no idea of where you are heading. I lived in Daegu for a year and never got completely used to it. Admittedly, I have a pretty bad sense of direction – but this was also true for most of my friends.

Fortunately, if you do get lost in Daegu’s downtown, it is usually very easy to find your way out again. Walk in any busy direction and you will soon enough come to either the main stage, or Cell Phone Street, and from there it’s easy to reorient yourself and set off again.  It is, at least, self-contained in a not-too-large area: you can’t get too lost.

Anyway, somewhere in all this, down an alley and then another alley, is the Green Motel. I’m not saying it is difficult to get to. It isn’t; not in the age of smartphones, not if you understand what “Green Motel” would be in Korean and can type that into Google Maps. But it is, nonetheless, Secret Knowledge. And that’s part of why the Green is an institution. You have to know about it, and knowing about it will make you feel streetsmart in Daegu. And so I’m not going to tell you how to find it here, either. You’ll have to find it on your own.

Of course, when I first stayed there, we didn’t have smart phones. I used to remember the directions like this: take the second left after the stage. Walk to the pink store, turn right, then walk to the next pink store, and turn left. If that’s helpful to you, by all means try to follow those directions. I do warn you, though: those pink shops aren’t there any more.


Once I make it to The Green, I go inside its heavy glass doors. Inside, I disturb the rest of one of the ancient proprietors. From behind the stomach-high counter, they rise from their floor bed, and I ask for a room for one person. They tell me the price – 30,000 won – and hand over the key to my room. All this is done in Korean, but accompanied by hand gestures; my Korean is fine for this, but they can conduct this transaction in sign language. They’ve done it for thousands of foreigners over the years.

I go up to my room. Back when I first used to come here, there was a belief that there was a “foreigner floor” and a “Korean floor”; I’m not sure if that still applies. I go inside my room; I’ve stayed here maybe twenty times, and it’s never changed.

Not especially clean, but not gross. A somewhat uncomfortable mattress, a tv, a shower. A mini-bar with free water and single can of Let’s Be coffee (Korea’s most budget, and terrible, canned coffee). Gold patterned wallpaper. An ashtray and a double glazed window through which you can hear, not loudly, the sounds of Daegu’s downtown.

Nobody ever wrote home about The Green’s decor, and it hasn’t improved any in the years I’ve been going there. It is what it’s always been: cheap, good enough, and very practical.

I rest up for a little while. It’s comfortable, being back here. I can’t say that I’ve ever had an unpleasant experience in this place. I have similar feelings about it to those I have about Incheon Airport; they are places that give me a warm feeling of movement; that I’m going somewhere, have something to do, that things will happen.


I meet up with my former student. We have coffee, and get dinner. And we still get on great! It’s amazing to me – we are different ages, come from different cultures, speak different languages, and haven’t lived in the same city in seven years. There’s no reason at all why we should still stay in touch, but we do, and it’s a really nice thing. For all the waegukin teachers: I hope, if you stay here long enough, you can have a student like that, as reminder of why you do it.

Just the same, I do still wonder if there will come a time when we no longer stay in touch. I’m reminded a little of “the problem of Susan” – the famous and justly criticised line in C.S. Lewis’s The Final Battle, where it is revealed that Susan can no longer visit Narnia because she is “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. It’s criticised because, of course, that is part of what growing up is about, and Susan’s punishment for it seems wildly inappropriate and sexist. But if you changed “nylons” to “Facebook”, it would be a reasonably description of my student; if it weren’t such a reductionist way to describe anybody. Just the same, nostalgia and fond memories of a teacher who was kind to you in elementary school can only go so far. But we’ve stayed in touch this long, and have much more to talk about than we did back then, so who knows?

After she goes back home, it’s still not late. I wander around Daegu downtown a little. As I said before, it seems different to how I remember it. The alleys are aglow with restaurants, all with different “concepts”, and the sounds of conversations drift down them. The way people dress is different to how I remember; more individual, less uniform. It seems a more confident city, more worthy of being described as “colorful” without irony.

Or maybe it’s me that’s changed and it’s just the warm glow of memory from a time when Korea still felt new to me. I am, if nothing else, a person who is profoundly susceptible to nostalgia.


I miss that Korea. The busy Korea; the Korea of shopping strips aglow with LED lights, crowded alleyways, underground shopping malls, subterranean ice bars, rooftop restaurants, cosmetic shops with girls in front in platform shoes. I miss the noise of a dozen different shops blasting a dozen different Kpop songs simultaneously. I miss meeting at designated subway exits. I miss restaurants that serve half-decent foreign food; I almost (but not quite) miss foreigner bars.

For the past 5 years or so, I’ve lived in rural Korea. And I love rural Korea! Really, I do. But I’m starting to get that restless feeling again. It’s time for me to move on to somewhere new.

I haven’t updated this blog for a while. There are a lot of reasons. The last thing I wrote on here caused me some problems. I wrote about the process of getting hired at a university, something which I thought would be of interest to a lot of people. And it was. In fact, somebody posted it to the Korea reddit, and it went to the top for a weekend, and got lots of positive comments (which is pretty amazing, for the Korea reddit; they’re a snarky bunch.)

The problem was, I’d used quotes from some of the resumes that had been submitted to us, as examples of what not to do. They were hilarious, and of course anonymous, but one of those redditors recognised a quote from his own resume. He wasn’t a jerk about it, but he was hurt, and he had a right to be.**That post now has an anachronistic date of a few years before I actually wrote it. I wanted to move it off the front page.

When I started this blog, I made it anonymous for a reason. I’d heard too many stories of people in Korea getting in trouble for things they’d said on the internet. For the most part, having your name known amongst the waegukin is not a good thing; as proof, try saying “Jackie Bolen” in a group of them and see the reaction you get. Making it anonymous freed me up to write about what I wanted to write about, without worrying about what others might think.

The anonymity was designed in a particular way. I wanted to make it extremely hard for some internet random to learn who I was. But I’ve never been backward about telling my stories, and if you know me in real life, it wouldn’t be hard to work out who I am from the things I’ve put on here.

That worked for a long time. When I was teaching at Korean elementary schools, there was almost no chance that anyone would recognise me from what I wrote. But, over time, this blog got more popular; it became at least semi-well known. And over time, I began to notice references to this blog in other places. Once, for instance, a teacher at my university submitted a lesson plan linking here. That was unnerving, as was hearing things I wrote on here become part of the general wisdom which two-year veterans passed on to newbies. I never knew if those things came originally from this blog, but it often felt like it.

The reality is, while it was possible to write pretty freely when I was a teacher at Korean elementary schools, my work colleagues are exactly the sort of people who would read this blog. After I wrote that article, and after I became head teacher, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write much about my work on here anymore. And for the last two years, that’s mostly what I’ve been thinking about.

As well, as time has gone on, “living in Korea!” has started to become more like just “living”. If I still lived in Australia, I doubt I would have the urge all that often to write on the topic of “Australia”, and increasingly living in Korea feels like that.

So, those are a couple of reasons why I haven’t updated this in a long time. But also, as I’ve written before on here, that state of stasis and comfort is one I can tend to drift into; and when I do, it’s time for something new.

Late last year, I told my current workplace that I would be looking for a new job for the forthcoming year. And that weekend, going back to Daegu, made me nostalgic, and made me feel that after so many years, that part of the country was still what felt like home to me.

So I have another story to tell – the story of my new job. And I’d really like to get back to writing this thing. It’s good for me. I can’t promise anything, of course, but there’s still things that amaze me about this country, still new things I’m learning, and still some things I have to say.

Waegukin wrote these 4263 words on March 12th, 2018 | Posted in Living, Teaching |


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