Written by Emmy Mildenberg

Gwangali's Night Light. Neal Singleton. Busan.

Gwangali’s Night Light. Neal Singleton. Busan.

“하나, 둘, 셋…하나, 둘, 셋…하나, 둘, 셋.”¹

Across from me, Chung Haram is practicing making straight lines. She counts to three each time, lifting her brush slightly up and back as she says each number and then pushing it forward again, the brush never leaving the page, so that the line resembles a tree branch. However, at the age of six she doesn’t really care that the lines aren’t straight or that the tree branch approach is supposed to be subtle. In fact, the large strokes are painfully crooked and from my vantage point they hardly look like lines at all — more like squiggly worms. However, when she tells our 선생님² that she is finished yelling “다 했어요!”³ she is told “ 잘 썼어요”⁴ and happily leaves her work to go play outside.

I love calligraphy because it is the calmest part of my day. The process of learning it has also proved rather entertaining. Today, however, the middle school boys in the back corner are really driving me crazy. There may only be three of them, but their voices are a constant buzz. Occasionally their ceaseless chatter will prompt the 선생님 to yell at them — telling them to either be quiet or go outside. Although she never makes good on these threats, it is soothing to me just to be reminded that I’m not their teacher, this is not my classroom, and I don’t have to deal with it.

I joined a calligraphy hagwon⁵ a few months ago because honestly I was bored. There aren’t a lot of gyms near me and certainly no Korean classes. Faced with the choice of joining my host siblings in swinging swords at hapkido⁶ or wasting away in the apartment I opted to go outside my comfort zone and take calligraphy. I spent about a week walking by the hagwon, trying to peer in through the window and see if the people inside looked friendly. I finally dragged my host sister with me one afternoon, knowing that if I took her with me I might finally go inside and sign up for a class. The ice cream we ate afterwards was a reward for her as much as it was for me.

My middle school has 523 students whom I see once a week, if that, and there just isn’t enough time to get to know them like I want to. My hagwon has 10 kids, four of whom are my besties. I love the simple fact that I know all of their names (even if you always think I mess yours up, Byeon Ji Yeon!⁷) I love that I can share my candy with them and not break the bank or feel guilty for not sharing with everyone. I love that I get to see them everyday and just talk about their lives.

I won’t claim to have any particular talent at calligraphy, but the seven-year-olds think I’m pretty amazing. I don’t tell them that my more developed fine motor skills are the reason I have such ‘talent.’ I tend to think I am terrible at it, but I would be lying if I said I did not enjoy them ‘oohing’ and ‘awing’ at my work.

When the radio is off, and the middle school boys are quiet, the sound of my brush on the paper is the only thing you can hear. I am attempting to make the perfect “ㅈ” sheet and it’s not going so well. I practice on newspaper at least four times before I make the final copy, and this is after weeks in September of practicing each letter individually. I am currently working on kerning⁸, but rest assured I will soon be on to real words.

Despite how wonderful the kids seem to think I am at this, I can see all my mistakes like they are written in red ink. The letters don’t quite line up. My name in Chinese looks sloppy. That line is too thick. This line is crooked. My mind is always helpfully supplying these mistakes but my hand isn’t cooperating in fixing them. I am caught in between leaving it alone and living with the mistake as is or trying to fix it and potentially making it much worse. I’ve taken both roads before and neither is kind.

선생님 has told me a hundred times “잘 썼어요” or the same sentiment of “well done” that Chung Haram got for her squiggly worms, which is why I usually don’t believe her. Today, however, she offers me some different advice. Smiling sweetly, she says “I’ve been doing this my whole life, and you have been doing it for two months, of course it won’t be perfect.” And just like that I’m freed. I’m free from the expectation that my calligraphy will be perfect, but this also rings true for my life at school and helps me to feel free from the struggle to be the perfect teacher.

These past few months teaching have made me face plenty of failures in the classroom. I’ve struggled with deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy coupled with a burning desire to do better and not really being able to figure out how. Sometimes I will re-write a lesson after every time I teach in order to get that much closer to this idea of perfection I have in my mind. But it is time to free myself from that perfection. Because once I am free from this fictitious standard I have set, I can be free of that agonizing feeling of disappointment that won’t leave me alone. Free to make mistakes because I’m also free to keep trying. Maybe it won’t be ‘perfect,’ but at least I’ll know I tried my best.

When I finish making a final copy of the day’s work on the special calligraphy paper, I used to wrap it in newspaper and throw it in an evergrowing stack under my desk. Now when I look at my artwork I look for the little things that let me know the piece is mine. That line that is extra thick because I was trying to make it look more straight. The way I write my name in Chinese because I can never remember the stroke order. These are just reminders that I made it — and I’m really proud of that. Maybe one day I will feel that way about more things in my life, but for now I’ve taken to hanging my artwork on the wall.

Emmy Mildenberg is a 2014-2015 ETA at Seogwipo Girl’s Middle School in Seogwipo, Jeju Island.


1. Hana, dul, set… “One, two, three… one, two, three….one, two, three.”
2. Sunsaengnim, teacher
3. ‘Da haesseoyo,’ “[I’m] all done!”
4. ‘Jal sseosseoyo,’ “[You] wrote well.”
5. Hagwon, private academy
6. Hapkido, Korean martial art
7. 변지연, a 7 year old who asked that her name be included in the piece
8. The process of adjusting the spacing between characters in a way that is proportional and visually pleasing