Oppa II, the return of Queen Elizabeth and Mr. Chin.

I was confronted by a gaggle of my students about an incident that happened on Sunday today. One of the boys was with a group of students who happened to be standing at the same intersection as Mike and me when we were on our way back to mine from Home Plus. One of the students and I had had a conversation in mixed Korean and English about my family earlier in the week. He asked if I had any brothers and sisters, and I said one brother. He asked, dong-saeng or oppa? I told him dong-saeng. It reveals a great deal about the ignorance of my students regarding my situation here that when he saw Mike standing next to me holding groceries, he asked, "Dong-saeng?" Assuming that I am here living with my family, as they do.

I laughed and said, "No. Oppa. English teacher."

I had my suspicions that it wouldn't take the boys long to confer amongst themselves and realize that I don't have an oppa by blood, and get curious about who exactly Mike is. One of the boys from the group collected six or seven of his friends and confronted me in front of my desk today. What I heard was this:

"Korean Korean Korean oppa Korean Korean Korean Home Plus."

I looked up from my work to be greeted by sixteen or so accusing eyes.

"Best friend. Friends for five years."

They turned their backs to me in a huddle and discussed this in Korean, then turned back around.


"No. Close friend. Very close friend."

They stared at me unconvinced.

"He is a friend. Now go away."

Today I decided to cut the boys and myself a break and show the new episode of Wallace & Gromit. No coteacher today, so when the class where the fights break out came in, I handed out the accompanying worksheet, put the show up on the screen paused, and sat down at my desk and started to organize my files. The chattering hum in the room persisted and eventually one of the students said, "Teacher. Let's go!"

I moved my hand in the air in the universal gesture for a moving mouth and went back to my work. At this point, my little gem who can't behave himself unless he is at the center of my attention said, "Teacher. Be quiet? You want?"

I nodded.

He moved to the front of the classroom in my usual position. "YA! Hey guys (an excellent imitation of me)! Everybody! Shut up!" When his shouts were met by nothing more than passing glances, he assumed a dominant adult posture and began to move around the room swatting boys in the head and telling them to shut up and sit down. After a few rounds of what I like to call The Wave (because the nonsense behavior tends to move around the room like the wave at a baseball game in exact accordance to the furthest point from where you are at any give moment), he approached the desk and stood with his hands on his hips, giving me a very serious look. "Aaash."

I peered up at him. "Not so easy, huh?"

"Teacher. They are bad boys."

At this point, the South African kid addressed me. "When will we watch the movie? I have not seen this one...."

"I know. It's new. Just came out. First one in a long time."

"When will we start? I want to finish it. Make them be quiet."

"Kiddo, today it's not my problem. There's nothing I need to teach, so they can talk as long as they'd like. They're just wasting their own time today."

After overhearing this exchange, it began to move backwards through the classroom in translation until, only moments later, they were all looking up at me with closed mouths and big innocent eyes.

During the show, I moved to one of the empty seats at a table in the back. Back center -- the quiet shy ones I don't usually get to spend much time talking with because I'm too busy juggling the loudmouths and miscreants. Or at least I thought they were quiet and shy.

They took the opportunity to get to know me. "Sunsengnim. Uh..." They discuss in Korean how to ask what my name is. "Sunsengnim. What is name?" That shows how much they've been paying attention in class.

"My name is Liz." I wrote it on his paper, along with "Elizabeth" and circled the "liz" part. "It comes from this, see?"



"Ya!" He turned around to the table behind him and started tapping boys on the shoulder, telling them my name was Elisabesuh. After mulling this over for a while, they turned back around. "Sunsengnim. Queen?"

"No. Now be quiet."

"Sunsengnim. My name. Romeo."

I leaned over and pulled his jacket toward me to read his name badge.

"Huh uh. Junchae. Junchae, be quiet and watch the show."

"Sunsengnim. Boyfrienduh?"

"No. Seriously... be quiet."

I also learned today that for some reason kicking the back of the boys' chairs is extremely offensive to them. I took great pleasure in being the aggravator instead of the aggravatee in the classroom for once.

I've been feeling quite stir-crazy the last few days, due to three days earlier in the week with no classes. I'm not designed to sit still at a desk for nine hours a day. At all. Yesterday after I got off work, I wandered around aimlessly for a couple of hours before coming home, just to release some energy, and today I decided I positively had to get out. Mike and I met in Bupyeong for dinner and coffee.

I tried to explain why I've been irritated with Mr. Kwan lately, other than all the "I don't have a girlfriend" blubbering. For one thing, Coteacher keeps popping up anytime Mr. Kwan and I have an "appointment" outside of school. I used to think that she was inviting herself, and I'm quite sure that she is. When we had just sat down at the restaurant on Tuesday, ordered, and started a decent conversation, Mr. Kwan's phone rang. Mrs. Kim had heard that we were out together. I understand not wanting to be rude, especially as she is his superior at work and elder, but come on. He didn't even warn me that she was coming, and I can't express the irritation I experienced when she came in with another teacher who doesn't speak any English.

Like I said before, I don't fault anyone for not speaking English. Obviously. But my daily conversation is extremely limited, and I was looking forward to having an evening in English that didn't involve me staring at walls for fifteen to thirty minutes at a time, waiting for someone to throw me a scrap of translation. My mood, despite my best efforts, visibly declined when they walked in, and I think Mr. Kwan knew he fucked up.

He's offered to make up for it on Monday when we will have to go out with all of the teachers for someone's retirement party. In the backseat of Mrs. Kim's car on the way home, he leaned over and whispered, "Monday night. After party. We will play together all night long, just you and me." Someone should probably explain that "play with me" and "play together" have quite a different connotation in English than they do in Korean, especially when coupled with "all night long". But it isn't going to be me.

The other thing that's pissing me off is his habit of moving "appointments", at least where S and Mike are also involved. This alone would be fine enough. But I've also started to notice something at work that wasn't bothering me before, but is now. Mr. Kwan has a habit of boasting to everyone within earshot that he and I are "very close friends" and that's why he can understand my English, and I his, so well. He's even started to refer to me as "dong-saeng" to other people at work, which he doesn't know I understand. And every time we go out, I am greeted by rounds of hassle from the other male teachers the next day, who ask me why I don't look more tired, because they heard Mr. Kwan and I were out very late last night drinking together. And. I've noticed he has a habit, when other men join us in the men's room at work to smoke, of telling me to come sit closer to him, and touching me in small ways -- to put cigarettes in my pocket, rather than my hand or leaning in to pick a piece of lint off my sweater.

If these things were to happen in private, I wouldn't mind them. But I'm not comfortable with things like this in public, particularly in the work place. And particularly considering how much mystery and fascination tends to surround the foreign teacher, and her already questionable habits of sitting at the men's table and smoking in the men's room. I'm not out to get a reputation -- I would like to be respected, at least in some amount, eventually. It's not that I give a flying fuck what anyone thinks, at least regarding the smoking and loitering around with men. It's that I don't think the impression Mr. Kwan is giving is fair. To be honest, I'd be happier talking to the older male teachers at work -- particularly the music and art teacher, but they don't speak enough English. The younger ones are the ones who are more comfortable with English, so those are the ones I hang around with.

Anyway, Mr. Chin. It's been conveyed to me, through the grapevine (which is alive and thriving with gossip, always, at my school) that he is unhappy in Incheon and put in for a transfer back to his hometown. It is said that he has no friends here, no family, and is lonely and bored. I told Mr. Kwan that I understand him, very well. His transfer has been denied, and since this news came down, he hasn't been eating in the cafeteria -- I don't know where he is. Mr. Kwan said he asked if he wanted to come out with us on Tuesday to cheer him up, but he said that he was not in the mood to socialize, and would just go home and go to bed. For someone who claims to be one of his best friends, Mr. Kwan seems confused every time I ask where Mr. Chin is and how he is coping with his bad news. "I don't know. I have not heard from him. Why are you asking?" Because I know how the guy feels. And it might be nice for him to hear that from someone who is very far from home, and who is also (for the most part) alone in this city. Even if it may only be conveyed in very broken English.

And because I like him. On Tuesday, I waved for Mr. Chin's attention from down the table. I got every one's attention in return. A hush fell over the entire table and all eyes were on me. I said, "President Bush. Shoes." Mr. Chin thought for a moment, translating in his head. And then he threw his head back and laughed. Although almost everyone at the table technically understood what I said, only Mr. Chin really understood what I was saying. Mr. Kwan, in return, said, "I hear first president Bush own baseball team at one time. I think he must be very good at baseball." And then looked upset when I didn't laugh at this joke. My attention lingered on Mr. Chin who was still looking at me.

The point is that language is not always the most important thing when it comes to being able to communicate with someone. And, though I talk about it all the time, I realized it in a whole new way as I returned Mr. Chin's gaze while the conversation in Korean continued around him, and Mr. Kwan continued speaking to me in English.

1 comment:

Kel said...

highly entertaining, as always. i can't wait to be surrounded by an air of mystery and fascination at my new school!