Grandmother Teacher.

Grandmother Teacher, as I mentioned before, is not a bad woman. She's kind of a pain in the ass to teach with (or rather, it's a pain in the ass to teach her classes), but she doesn't actually speak English, so she doesn't bother me too much. I always correct the students when they call her Grandmother Teacher to me, because there's too much animosity in the nickname most times.

She's been at the school since I started there, three years ago. We've sat next to, or close to each other, at countless hwaeshik and lunch periods. Yesterday, I happened to follow her right into the cafeteria, and ended up sitting at a table alone with her and her other grandmother teacher friend. I heard her say it in Korean and thought, no.... I must have misunderstood. But just to clarify, she leaned over and said it in English, just to be sure: "You use chopsticks very well." Then, she looked back to her friend and repeated it once more in Korean, as way of explaining what she had just told me. In case the other grandmother teacher missed that, somehow.

Grandmother Teacher. That's it, really. I'm not going to pretend I don't know who the students are talking about anymore, when they use your moniker. You are officially on your own. Three years, and you've just gotten around to changing your mind about that. You've earned it, Grandmother Teacher.


Jon said...

I don't understand why you would have a hostile reaction to this.

From your description it seems that this is a woman who is not entirely comfortable with speaking lots of English with you and now she has finally reached out a little with a rather benign compliment.

As a Korean learner, I know some of my rather simplistic sentences probably state the obvious to my Korean listeners. But I think (hope?) they appreciate my effort to speak in a language that I'm obviously still struggling with. Unless there's something else going on here that you haven't mentioned, I think you should cut her some slack.

I'm no Picasso said...

Jon -- I appreciate the input. However, as a Korean learner myself, I would never tell a Korean I've spent the last three years eating with that they use a fork very well. Personally, although my sentences in Korean are simple, that wouldn't be something I would find appropriate to say. Are you impressed when Koreans use forks?

Jon said...

Well, I would just encourage you to focus not on the content of her comment, but rather on the fact that a previously shy person who had--for whatever reason--not felt comfortable engaging you in conversation decided to give it a shot and open up. I suspect she would be regretful if she knew how much hostility her compliment had aroused.

And finally, I think the fork analogy is not a close fit here. Nearly all Koreans can handle using a fork. A large number of westerners are completely useless with chopsticks. Furthermore, there's a correct way to hold the chopsticks and a "not-technically-correct-but-it-works" way to hold them. I occassionally have Koreans try to help me learn the correct way. Perhaps she was impressed that you were using them properly.

I'm no Picasso said...

Jon -- I would encourage her to notice at some point in the previous three years that I eat with chopsticks at every single meal, during literally hundreds of which I have sat directly next to or across from her.

Also, did you miss the part where she is an English teacher?

I understood rather quickly that you would've had a different reaction to the comment. The interesting thing about the world is that we all have different reactions to different things. Maybe you could make a blog post about how much you like it when Koreans comment on your chopstick skills!

I would say that I would then stop by to encourage you not to like it when Koreans compliment you on your use of chopsticks, but I wouldn't. Because it doesn't really matter to me whether you enjoy that or not. I might leave a comment explaining why I don't like it, but I would probably be fine with the fact that you do. I wouldn't really feel like I needed to encourage you to change your mind. I hope that wouldn't disappoint you?

Turner said...


No matter how you justify their reactions, a Korean telling a westerner he or she can use chopsticks properly after months or years of seeing such use is condescending. And the fork analogy fits.

Jon said...

Turner -- You're certainly correct that the teacher’s comment could be taken that way. So you can respond in one of two ways.

First, you have INP’s approach. You could be offended, take the remark as a condescending insult, and harbor a grudge against a close colleague with whom you work on a daily basis for the foreseeable future. You could undermine her authority at school by being silently complicit in the students’ insulting references to her.

Or, you could smile politely, chuckle, and say something like “Sure! I’ve lived in Korea for almost four years. I’ve had lots of practice using chopsticks”. And you could move the conversation on to other stereotype-busting topics like how you like kimchi or are actually able to speak a little Korean.

If you’ve lived in Korea for even a short period of time, you’ve likely faced this very situation. Which approach do you take? Which approach seems more mature to you? Which approach makes you happy at the end of the day? INP and I obviously answer these questions differently, although I’m not sure how much of her hostility is real and how much of it is just shtick for her blog.

And finally, I’ve provided a couple of reasons why the fork analogy doesn’t fit well here. I could provide more reasons, such as the fact that some foods are particularly difficult to handle with chopsticks, even for many Koreans. Things like 냉면 and 묵 come to mind. It’s pretty easy to stab just about any food with a fork. If you think my reasons don’t hold water, why not explain why the analogy is, in fact, a good one? Simply making the conclusory statement that it “fits” doesn’t add anything to the conversation.

I'm no Picasso said...

Jon – As long as we are making suggestions, I would highly suggest that you lighten up a bit. Shtick for my blog? No. But a bit of a joke, yes. I have not lived in Korea for "even a short period of time". I have lived in Korea for three years. When someone who is watching me eat for the first time sees me use chopsticks and comments on it, I smile and say, "Thank you!" However, watching someone do something every day for three years and being amazed when they can do it does not mean you are culturally underexposed. It means you are either stupid or willfully ignorant. If you think that’s something that the average Korean would be inclined to do, then I feel sorry for you – you must be encountering some very unique and frustrating people. As far as telling her I speak “a bit” of Korean, she knows – I speak to her in Korean. And I’m sorry, but I have to disagree – eating 냉면 with chopsticks is not difficult for me. It’s actually easier than using a fork.

But again, as long as we are making suggestions about how we think other people should behave, I would say that while you may find my irritation at the situation to be poor behavior, I think that you could benefit from reconsidering your urge to lecture other foreigners. It’s not really becoming behavior, from my point of view, either. I understand that you have your own way of doing things, but I’ve been adjusting and adapting to Korea and Korean work culture for a very long time. Assuming you know better than I do and giving condescending lectures doesn’t make you look like a very pleasant person to be around.

I'm glad we could share like this!

Turner said...

Well, he's not wrong about one thing: foreigners who thrive (or at least make a home for themselves) long term in Asia tend to be ones who "smile politely, chuckle" and just shrug off comments like that. The reason? I believe they know those stereotypes will never change, and there's little point in getting angry or trying to dispel them with conversation.

Jon said...

INP – I never said you lived in Korea for a short period of time. Nor did I say that commenting as your co-teacher did was “something that the average Korean would be inclined to do”. And I didn’t say that eating 냉면 with chopsticks was difficult for you—-I said it was difficult for many Koreans (I’ve had them tell me as much).

I’m sorry that you took my comments as a condescending lecture. You had blogged about an annoying situation at your school that resulted in hostility, acrimony and a grudge being held. Having experienced similar situations, I replied with an alternative that might produce a more positive and amicable outcome. It was intended as simple constructive criticism that might make life easier.

Many people who face difficult situations would be happy to hear about a more positive way to handle those situations. This conversation has made clear that you aren’t interested in receiving any such feedback. I will keep that in mind before commenting again in the future, which I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear.

I'm no Picasso said...

Well, I don't know why you would feel the need to claim that my situation was one that even a teacher who has been here for a short amount of time would have faced. Clearly it's impossible for a person who has been here for a short amount of time to have someone who has watched them eat with chopsticks for three years compliment them on using chopsticks? Also, to claim that it's such a common occurrence as to have happened to everyone would also clearly imply that it would be something the average Korean (or something close to average) would do?

“Hostility, acrimony and a grudge being held”, however, are all your contributions to the conversation. You failed to see what I posted as a joke and for some reason assume I’m now roaming the hallways of my school muttering under my breath about revenge. I can assure you that I am not lying awake at night plotting the Grandmother Teacher’s demise, so I don’t really need advice on how to cope with the situation. You are correct that I do not welcome “constructive criticism”, because… this is not a workshop? If you really are the kind of person who welcomes advice about more positive ways to deal with situations, then I will say that usually just giving your opinion when you are dealing with other adults is sufficient. Wandering about doling out “constructive criticism” to people at random is, again, rather negative. And clearly you are all about being positive and giving people the benefit of the doubt. So. Good luck with that!