9.01.2009

I don't understand "olleh!".

There are a million and one things I don't mention here. A million and one things that fall between the cracks of the reports of daily life as a teacher, as a person with a reasonably amusing social life. A person who's trying very hard to adjust to a new culture, learn a new language, acquire skills in a new profession. A million and one things that just break through at different moments throughout the day and make me remember again, for the nth time today, this week, this month, this year why I'm here, why I'm staying another year.

It's too late to be calling it the honeymoon phase, but I guess you could say we're still newly weds. From the Buddhist prayers that play out over the concrete hills of my neighborhood in the evenings, to the boys peeking out at me from under their arms, stretched into impossible positions of "punishment", to smile from inside their classrooms, as I walk down the hallway outside. The ajeoshi playing GoStop on a green mat under the car park every afternoon on my walk home. The various shop ajumas who push my Korean a little further every week when I stop in, commenting to the lingering neighborhood shoppers on how good I'm getting, how they remember when I first came and I couldn't understand a word.

With the beginning of this new contract, I've cause to stop and think for a moment that I could have been walking away from all of this in about a month. I've been so busy lately that I haven't had time to contemplate my future, or what it means to be here, to choose to stay here. It's just been one foot in front of the other for a while now, and much more like running than walking. But at the thought of being somewhere else -- even just the thought -- my heart aches a little. I didn't expect to love this place. The experience, the challenge and the newness -- yes. But the place itself, I didn't think it would get inside like this.

The new boys coming in make me feel so permanent. They don't have the experience of witnessing me as a wide-eyed new arrival, unsure on her feet. They speak to me in Korean and don't bat an eye when I understand, and repeat back to them what they said in English. I have this gut feeling like these are my boys, the ones I will watch grow up from four foot little munchkins carrying on about Pikachu into six foot nearly-men holding hands with girls outside the shops after school. I'll know their names, their habits and their interests. I'll spend two full years teaching them.

The third graders are not taking kindly to the whole situation. It's evidence of an underlying issue, really. When they see me walking home with the first graders, who speak in paragraphs, they try to get my attention, but can only manage a couple of words. They mumble to each other, using not very kind Korean terminology to refer to the younger boys, about hagwon and having money.

I feel like time is my enemy. If I had started taking classes sooner, if I had been studying harder this whole year, I would be able to understand them when they spoke in paragraphs, in their native tongue. It's a barrier I just can't forgive, not on any level -- not with the students, and not in my personal life.

The other teachers have been asking why I'm interested in learning Korean. My co-teachers tell them that I have an interest in language. Wrong. I have an interest in people. Language is just this stupid, fucked up thing that keeps getting in the way.

Part of the reason why I cling to my students so much is that I feel, sometimes, like they are the only people here that I can really trust. They don't give a shit about improving their English, or practicing conversation with a native speaker -- they talk to me, make the real effort, because they want to talk to me. Part of the reason -- a big part of the reason -- why I'm so hell-bent on becoming fluent in Korean as soon as possible is so that, frankly, I never have to speak to another Korean who's studying English ever again. I don't have to spend my time with waegookin groupies and people who fetishize foreigners. I can make normal friends, with normal interests, who don't give a shit about what my native language is.

There have been a rash of teachers at school recently who are mothers of young children, who have been suggesting that I give up my one free day during the week (Wednesday) or my Saturday mornings, to plan lessons and teach their kids for free. It isn't about the kids -- I love kids, and would love to get to know theirs. It's about the disrespect of the entire situation -- the fact that these women seem to have no problem making it completely obvious that they believe I'm in this country only to be an English robot. Like I don't have a personal life, or people back home that I have to spend time and energy connecting and keeping in touch with. They don't have personal relationships with me -- we have no jeong. And even after I explain how busy I am, between work and Korean classes, they simply mention the fact that they know I don't have to work on Saturdays, and so I must have some free time then.

It's absolutely shameless. And so are the (albeit more innocent) people who march straight up to you in a bar and announce that they want to be your friend because they want their English to improve.

Really? So what's in it for me?

After that, the only way they pass muster is if they take their own initiative to communicate with me partially in Korean. This has become the litmus test.

But, to be honest, I'd rather just do away with the entire thing altogether. Just learn Korean and avoid these people who are leaving to study abroad in three months. At the moment, I don't have much of an option.

Obviously, I didn't mean for this post to be so pessimistic. I'm still enjoying my time here, and the people that I meet everyday. And I'm not ruling everyone out. Just reflecting on what I would like to have open to me in the future. Even the small conversations that have opened up since I've been studying have been enough to keep me sane in the face of all the other. I'll keep working hard, even if my progression is slow. Although I have so little patience for myself, my motivation is strong and every day there are signs of encouragement.

Fighting. I have a habit of meeting the students' resistance to participate in class with the battle cry, "Oh come on! You can do it!" The new babies have quite a fondness for this, and now announce to the entire class before reading out an answer, "I can do it!"

I can do it. Olleh!

3 comments:

Willie said...

Yeah I think some of my favorite koreans at school are the ones that speak barely any english or none at all. Mainly because they try to give me free food and feed me more to compensate for our lack of communication. They also cant tell you that your face is too black and that you should scrub off all the black.

I dont understand the olleh thing. What are we at a soccer game in Spain? This is english class, there is nothing to olleh about. I guess its the new bibbityy boppitty boo this season. Fifth grade has started telling me "I'm human!!!" when I dont call on them though or give them stickers. I have no clue where that one came from though, and the only response I can think of is "That's nice."

I'm no Picasso said...

I told them today that olleh (ole) is actually Spanish. That shut them up (ie confused them).

I got "I'm human!" today too! What is it?? I feel like I'm in over my head with these new first graders. There's a generation gap already. Big Bang is so last year and Girls Generation are ugly because they had plastic surgery. Try telling my third graders that.

Re: Koreans who can't communicate with you. I'm operating under the assumption that every last one of them would never say things like, "Your face is so pretty but you're a little fat." It's how I'm surviving. I have a feeling Korean class is going to ruin this for me, soon.

Kali said...

I need to make a google account haha..anyways,

You're blog is so real! I love it. With this post, all I can say is that I've had plenty of encounters where the first thing a Korean says to me is that they 'want to improve their English', when in all reality they really just want to talk to me and didn't know what else to say. I've built a close relationship to a few Koreans that have started out that way...so give them a chance! I'm sure that you feel that's all they want (because most do) but sometimes they don't know how else to break the ice with an American, haha. I enjoy reading your writings and continue to do so. Hope to be in Korea in 11 months~! We'll see. :]