Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Language Dictates Human Interaction

My girlfriend and I recently attended a movie theater in Seoul to watch “300.” You should know that a Korean theater is as good a place as any to watch unrealistically fit Greek soldiers and unrealistically deformed Persians hack and stab at each other for two hours. In fact, the only real difference between watching this in Seoul and watching it in America is that the Greeks’ chest-beating banter is translated, via subtitles.

Therefore, at the bottom of the screen were words a Korean man might say were he prone to pounding his upper torso and shouting full-throated one-liners that exude machismo and are ready-made for movie posters.

However, it was something that occurred outside of the room where we watched such improbable puncturing that made me wonder about how languages dictate human interactions. I was thirsty and so I went to a vending machine on the same floor as the theater. I had no coins so I put the 1000 won (roughly equivalent to $1) bill in the machine in order to purchase a bottle of water.

The machine wouldn’t take my bill, so I considered asking the theater attendant, a woman who appeared just slightly older than me, for help. The trouble was deciding what to say to her in order to facilitate helpful service. In many ways, my Anglicized standards of what is a polite request got in the way.

When Koreans ask an older woman for help, I hear them say “Ajuma!” However, this word is usually associated with a middle-aged, married woman, usually one with children. If I were in America and needed help from a woman in the same age bracket as this one, addressing her as “Middle-aged married woman, usually with children!” she might walk all the way across the room just to lay an open palm across my cheek.

On the other hand, the word for young, unmarried women in Korean is “agassi.” I don’t know why they are called this, but I like to think it’s because many young Korean women are bald and have the greatest return of serve in the history of professional tennis. The trouble with this word is that this woman was probably older than me, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to shout out “Young lady!” in public. Korean culture has a very strict standard of addressing those older than you, and I fear there may be etiquette police who are just waiting for me to slip up so they can jump out of the shadows and take turns laying open palms across my cheeks.

Later, I asked my girlfriend what I should do in a situation such as this, and she told me that I should say “Yogi-oh!” In Korean, this phrase can mean, “Please come here” or “I was very surprised by what the former manager of the New York Yankees just did!” Not surprising, the former is more common.

I have eaten enough in Korean restaurants to know that this phrase is commonplace, but it just doesn’t sound right to me. If someone said “Come here, please” to me, my usual reaction would probably be to say, “What do you need?” in order to make sure the trip was worth the effort. If the Korean woman had asked me that question, my meager studies of the language would have left me painfully short of being able to reply.

It was at this moment that I was finally put into a position where I could be proud of my own language. For so long I have heard so many people say Spanish, French, or Latin are more beautiful languages than my own. Also, many people in this country say that Korean is very scientific and much easier to learn than English. While my language may be a linguistic mutt borne of Latin and Germanic languages and the pronunciation of its vowels may be inconsistent, we do have one wonderfully effective word to our credit: “ma’am.”

Just by saying “ma’am” I can tell a woman of indeterminate age that I respectfully request her attention. I have yet to discover a single Korean word that sums up this thought, and it would be awkward to shout “Woman of indeterminate age, I request your attention respectfully!” inside a movie theater.

The barrier was so great that I ultimately said nothing to her. Instead, I went back inside and asked my girlfriend if she had any change she could lend me so I could have something to drink during the movie. She did, and my problem was solved.

However, the whole experience left me wondering about how context changes when words are translated from one word to another. For example, how authentic do the chest-beating quotations in “300” sound when translated into Korean subtitles? For example, when King Leonidas says “Give to them nothing! But take from them everything!” what does that sound like in Korean?

I don’t know, but I like to think that the Korean viewers see this: “Take from them everything but give to them English lessons, because somehow we’ve mastered the language at least 800 years before it was widely spoken! I mean, we speak it even better than the Ancient Greek which is our native tongue!”

I don’t think that would fit on a movie poster, however.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


I've Turned Into My Teacher

Conventional wisdom has it that a point will come in every person’s life in which he or she thoroughly emulates the parent of their corresponding gender, to the extent that they have actually assumed that parent’s identity. It’s at this point in said young person’s life that they are supposed to violently lay their palm across their forehead and exclaim, “I’ve turned into my (insert appropriate parent).”

This action is most apt when the young person notices his or herself mimicking a certain tendency of this parent they once found bothersome. The corresponding parent of my gender is a gentleman of the working class, who never needed to be bribed into working long hours on the job and lived a simple lifestyle.

The downside of these diplomatically-phrased descriptors is that my corresponding-gender’s parent had little patience for time spent simply imagining things, or for any type of music recorded subsequent to 1965. Therefore, I would know that I had turned into him should I ask someone either “Why are you wasting your time with that?” or “Why are you listening to that garbage?”

I’ve tried to imitate my corresponding-gender’s parent’s post-Martin Luther work ethic in my liberal arts background, but I have yet to find myself in the managerial or patriarchal position that is a prerequisite for telling someone they don’t work hard enough.

I have also noticed that the popular music produced in the past two decades or so does, in fact, resemble discarded animal or vegetable matter. However, unlike said parent, I think this has less to do with the changing values of the times, and more to do with the fact that the music industry has convinced most listeners that an individual of pleasing appearance can be a “musician” even though they have all the creative potential of under-processed Limburger cheese.

Therefore, I have yet to strike myself on the frontal lobe and declare that I’ve become my father. However, recently, during my teaching tenure, I noticed a different kind of trend I wouldn’t have imagined just years ago. While a student at Southern Adventist University in Chattanooga, one of the most admired and austerely-regarded men on campus was Dr. Jan Haluska in the English department.

Most of the male English professors I’ve encountered at secular institutions have disheveled hair and consider “dressing up” to mean putting on a button-up shirt with a front pocket useful for storing tobacco products. Dr. Haluska had a haircut only incrementally longer than it was during his army days in late 60s, wore a suit every day and had the posture of a steel telephone pole.

He had an autographed photo of Dick Cheney in his office and opened semesters by telling his classes about the Battle of Thermopylae. “Three-hundred Spartans held off the entire Persian army for three days,” he said in a low voice, before dramatically shifting his pitch upward. “Three-hundred Spartans! I get emotional just thinking about it.”

I recall him stealthily approaching a student from behind in order to enlighten him about a university rule that few teachers even thought about: “Shorts are not allowed in this university’s classrooms.” I remember how his attitude toward late homework so intimidated my roommate that I was asked to deliver a late composition paper to his class. My roommate, a two-meter tall, 280-pound farm boy pleaded: “If I go in there he’ll make an example of me!”

However, for the best students, Dr. Haluska’s classes were a trial by fire and red ink, and some students said his lectures would be interesting even if he were talking about how to cook with tomatoes.

Fast-forward to more recent times when I, as a teacher for the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in Korea, was in my English conversation classes scheduling when my students would give their final speeches. Each student one had to talk about their favorite song, TV show, movie or work of art. But first, they had to write a draft and send it to me so I could correct sentences like “Bourne Identity is my best movie” or “I very enjoy Rodin’s art.”

They then had to send it to me a second time, so I could see if they had corrected their mistakes, and then I would let them speak. As class ended on this particular day, a student in his mid-20s named “Carter” asked me when he would give the speech that he had yet to show me. As his fellow students left class, they received a demonstration of what a native speaker with a Midwestern American accent sounds like when he raises his voice.

“When you show it to me like I asked you to,” I said, watching Carter slink backward and attempt to hide his face somewhere in his chest.

“Look at me when I talk to you,” I said. “You will not learn English until you do what your teacher tells you to.”

“I’m sorry,” he squeaked, before leaving class and embarking to search for his speech draft, along with his manhood. It seems not so long ago I was working part-time at fast food restaurants and calculating which professor at Southern would let me wear shorts. So, at this moment in class I had to wonder, “Have I turned into Jan Haluska?”

I can only hope.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


A Habit Koreans Can't Quite Quit

It was a typical Monday morning in most respects: I had just finished trying to help level 3 Korean students at the Chuncheon SDA Language Institute make correct grammatical sentences and I had an hour before I would try to help some level 2 students make sentences that were at least intelligible.

With that much time to spare, I decided to go to the market located on the first floor of the building next to our office, where I could buy a bottled drink that would accomplish the two-fold goal of boosting my energy levels while simultaneously corroding my tooth enamel.

However, this time, when I returned to the fourth floor of the building where our institute implants the use of Romanized characters into pliable Asiatic minds, I was a wanted man. “Pastor Kwan is looking for you,” the secretary told me as I stepped inside the office.

“Okay,” I said, and headed for the staff room to leave my caustic beverage on the table.

“The pastor was looking for you,” said one of my fellow foreign teachers upon my arrival.

“Yeah, okay, I heard,” I said, and then meandered toward the office where our institute’s head pastor and institute director makes our complicated cross-cultural endeavor cohesive.

I entered the room and saw Pastor Kwan sitting along with Kathryn, one of the Korean teachers who tries to make our level 1 students say sentences, any sentences, whether they are intelligible or not. Kwan, who next to me looks as tall as a soybean plant and just as heavy, sought to confirm the latest intra-institute intelligence he’d received. “I just heard terrible news,” he said. “They told me you’re leaving to go to Seoul.”

“Yeah, they’ve asked me to go to the main institute in Seoul and work in the textbook office,” I said.

“I think you’d better change your mind,” he rejoined. “I worry about your nose.”

It’s not that my nose has a tendency to wander when not watched carefully. He was referring to that fact that I have had two rough winters in Korea keeping flu symptoms at bay, and 40 years of rapid industrialization has left Seoul’s air quality about as clear as the Democratic Party’s plan for Iraq’s future.

“I’ll tell you what’s not good for my health,” I told him. “Teaching until 9 p.m. every evening and then getting up to do a 7 a.m. class is not good for me.”

“But I think hours will be worse in Seoul,” he said.

“They told me I would work from eight to six every day,” I countered.

“Yes, they told you eight to six but it will be more,” he struck back.

At this point Kathryn, who had been listening while downing noodles meant to sustain her through two more morning classes, spoke up. “Sometimes the Korean staff work extra hours in the textbook office, but it’s different for foreigners,” she said. “I think you will be okay.”

The pastor, somewhat stung at losing one of his hires and being contradicted by another, sunk into desperation. “Is there anything that can make you stay?” he concluded.

“You know, sometimes, when I’m teaching the adult students I think I’d like to stay in Korea and work for SDA forever,” I tell him. “Then, I go into the children’s classes in the afternoon and after about five minutes I think, ‘I’d like to leave today!’”

The discussion settled, the pastor wished me good luck and told me I’d be missed, while I told him Chuncheon would always be one of those special places in my heart that no one in the outside world has ever heard of.

I have held various jobs during the last 10 years, and circumstances inevitably require me to move on eventually. When I’ve told an employer that I’m moving on to a new place or a new job, the reactions that I have received from my supervisors are usually memorable. They run the gamut from “Sorry to hear that,” “Sound like a good opportunity,” “I’m sorry I can’t pay more,” to “I understand; I’m planning to quit in two weeks.”

However, this occasion with Pastor Kwan was an experience quite unlike any I’d encountered before. At first I was embittered, because it had been a difficult decision to make and I didn’t appreciate him trying to discourage me just because my leaving was inconvenient for him. However, a couple of weeks later, I was once again enlightened as to the culture of the Korean workplace.

On a Saturday before our church service began, he stood before the congregation and began speaking the native language. Amidst a smattering of words I couldn’t distinguish from one another, I heard the words “Rob York” and then Kathryn began to translate for him.

“Teacher Rob York will be leaving us to go to Seoul,” she said. “He’s not used to what Korean bosses do when an employee leaves, and that often involves begging them to stay. I begged him to stay because he’s done a lot for this institute.”

Then, wishing me good health, they presented me with a traditional Korean gift: a handkerchief.

I’m not a perfect employee; I’ve just had some very good employers who let me do what I needed to do and appreciated me for it, even if they showed their appreciation in vastly different ways.

Monday, March 12, 2007


One Week in Seoul

March 4 @ 2 p.m.
I entered my new apartment in Seoul this morning with plans to contact customer service to initiate the installation of internet service and then begin search for an affordable DVD player after unpacking. However, upon my arrival, those items were pushed much, much further down my to-do list.
A very quick scan of my apartment revealed no refrigerator, microwave, toaster oven, television set, washing machine or water purifier to filter Seoul's undesirable drinking liquids into something suitable for intake. These things had been provided for me at my previous institutes, but upon viewing my new place of residence I heard the foreboding tapping of piano keys in my head, accompanied by the ominous voice of Robert Stack.
He narrates the following: "That was the moment when he began to suspect that his new job and the move that accompanied it were all part of an insidious scheme to exploit his foreignness and watch him scramble in search of edible food for his home. The perpetrators of this heinous crime … are still at large."
The famed actor of stage and screen who died of old age years ago but probably still appears 45 years old in his grave is right. I can hear the Korean architects of this scheme chortling when I close my eyes: "Ha! Watch the foreigner live off of fast food for awhile as he searches for electronics to buy! I bet you'd trade those six extra inches for a basic grasp of our language, wouldn't you, White Devil?! Muahahahaha!"
I will have my vengeance.
March 4 @ 6 p.m.:
In the late afternoon I visited one of the foreign administrators in the central office to ask if we'd have help acquiring our furnishings. He made a few phone calls to some other foreigners better situated to this environment who were in meetings or had mysterious appointments off campus. He then told me to wait at the apartment for awhile and call back if I heard no word.
Clearly, this conspiracy has infiltrated my fellow foreigners who had once sworn to help us. There was nothing I could do but return to my apartment and finish unpacking. At about 5 p.m. a Korean man arrived to place a seat atop the commode which had conspicuously had none previously. He then looked around the apartment momentarily, before tersely announcing, "Microwave, washing machine and water to drink will be here tomorrow," then leaving just as abruptly.
The mind games continue, as my adversaries now believe that throwing me the slightest hope of a bone will keep me in this cruel game they have devised.
Someday, I will have my vengeance.
March 4 @ 8 p.m.:
Tired of measuring the dimensions of my bedroom (it's 8 feet wide by 15 feet across, approximately) and searching for silverware that also seems to be missing, I set out in the rain to search for electronics stores to scout. The mouthpiece of my tormentors didn't mention anything about a microwave or a toaster oven, so I must prepare for the possibility that I must procure them myself.
Should I purchase these items, I'm sure some of my Korean friends will tell me I should have waited for them to help me so that I could have gotten a better deal. However, waiting for them to help me Tuesday doesn't get my bread toasted on Monday.
I discovered LG and Samsung department stores side by side. I was merely on a mission of reconnaissance, so there was no need to initiate the awkward conversations with the Korean salespeople that my adversaries would obviously relish. The solution I devised was to only examine items in passing and never stop actually moving. Therefore, they were never able to catch me and say whatever Korean words translate into "May I help you?"
However, I was nearly baited into examining the flash drives, electronic language dictionaries and blank CDs sold at these outlets. A failure to prioritize at this stage would only let my invisible foes prevail, and I will not do it!
Instead, I bought a single-serving carton of milk and ate a bowl of cereal with a table spoon.
I swear that someday I will have vengeance.
March 5 @ 5 p.m.
I returned from my first day at the office to find a Korean man inside my apartment attempting to install the oven. I found a stack of boxes including a toaster oven, microwave, blender, vacuum cleaner and juicer. Also, the washing machine has been installed in the next room.
Relieved, I decide to leave the apartment and find some groceries. I return to find there is no water purifier and oven is still unattached and unusable.
I have mixed feelings, but at least I can keep cereal at my own apartment now. I would have toast, but the nearest grocery store I can find has no bread.
Vengeance shall be mine.

March 6 @ noon
My attempts to have internet installed at my apartment have been met with frustration and degradation. The teaching coordinator told me it would be taken care of if I talked to the secretary, and the secretary told me to talk to one of the two assistant pastors, neither of which is in his office. I have attempted to call the internet company and make arrangements myself, only to receive an automated message programmed by someone who obviously didn't speak English very good.
The messages "Connection is delayed, please wait for awhile," "It is a lot of inquiring call now," Now is on another inquired call," and "One moment, please" repeat, over and over again and at random.
My tormentors went the extra mile this time, as they have apparently made dark alliances with the internet company.
However, today the water purifier and the oven are connected.
However, these shall not assuage my vengeance, and it shall be sweet.
March 6 @ 5 p.m.
I searched a nearby shopping district upon hearing that I might find a high quality gymnasium in that area. I didn't succeed in finding it, but instead I found a McDonalds, and thought a little bit of American-style sodium intake would help me feel better about my situation.
I knew as I walking back to my apartment that this was a decision that would haunt me for days to come. My adversaries have not only infiltrated every corridor of my institute, they now are predicting my moves ahead of time and poisoning my chicken nuggets!
I will have my vengeance … if I can ever leave the bathroom again.
March 7 @ 4 p.m.
I called my supervisor to tell her that I wasn't up for working today. In one of the few genuinely helpful acts I've encountered so far in Seoul, she offered to take me to the Adventist hospital adjacent to our institute and communicate with them for me.
When I started the day with abdominal pain and distinct fear of eating, I assumed that today would be similar to those times in high school/college when I had the flu: I would go to the doctor's office for about an hour, he'd say "Get some rest, take these pills three times a day, drink lots of water, etc. etc." (It's a little known fact that while "etc." is the Latin phrase meaning "and so on," the double use "etc. etc." is also a Latin phrase, but one used primarily by doctors, which means "This medical advice I'm giving is so formulaic I can't believe I'm getting paid so much to give it.")
Upon receiving the doctor's advice, I would then return home and spend the rest of the day napping, watching movies, eating breakfast foods and reading The Hobbit or something else I didn't have time to read during a typical work week.
However, I had clearly misjudged both my illness and the current state of Korean medicine: which is highly thorough if not terribly convenient. My doctor told me that I was dehydrated and chose to attach me to IV for four-and-a-half hours.
And so, in the basement of this hospital, I lay in a bed two inches too short for me, surrounded by five middle-aged Koreans receiving the same treatment. I was able to sleep for one hour, and successfully occupied the rest of time pondering the deep questions of life, such as: "If I move my arm this way will blood come out?" "Where is the bathroom here?" "If I move my elbow this way will blood come out?" and "How long has it been since I went to the bathroom?"
Finally, when the water in the bad and stopped dripping, the nurse removed the tape from my arm (this process was clearly designed for those more hairless than I) and sent me on my way to the pharmacy. There, to accompany my medication, I received a bit of dietary advice: "Don't drink cold water, don't drink milk, and don't eat solid food."
I will have my vengeance against the pharmacy.
March 9 @ noon
After two days out sick, today I went into work and completed an actual work day at the textbook office; albeit the half-day we have on Fridays (it's a start).
I have all my appliances and I can eat dairy products again. However, I am no closer to my goal of internet access than I was when I started, and my apartment is still a crypt devoid of televised entertainment.
However, Monday begins a new week, a full week of work that I can spend helping to design our new textbooks so that Koreans across the country will learn to speak English just as I do.
In that way, I will have my vengeance.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Moving Up Means Moving Out

What is the answer to the following question: “Is it darker at night than it is during the day?”

I ask this because, with 16 months of teaching under the leather clothing accessory which keeps my pants upright and matches the color of my dress shoes, I was recently contacted by our central office and informed of a new opportunity. This could be a possible summarization of the choice they offered me:

“Would you like to work from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. almost every day helping us develop our textbook system? Or, would you prefer making less money while teaching seven hours a day spread out between the crack of dawn and the point where it stops being evening and starts being the time when you really need to go to sleep?”

To me, the reply to that question seemed about as obvious as the response to the one in the first paragraph, and so I answered it the same way I’d answer that one: “Yes, except sometimes in Alaska.”

I was always told by my parents, the professors in my major, and others required by law to be optimistic about my future that I would “move up in the world” if I worked hard at every task I performed. I have tried to follow their advice fairly closely, believing that either I’d find success if they were right or a good rationale for grumpiness later in life if they weren’t.

These bountifully buoyant individuals may have warned me about the incoming job opportunities, but I now consider them rather negligent in informing me of how much actual “moving” it requires to progress in an upward fashion on this earth. You see, since I graduated college in December 2002, I have now switched residencies five times, making for an average one time per year.

First of those was the move from the sanctity and security of my college dormitory to my first apartment in the real world, surrounded on all sides by the callous, carnivorous canines of real world employment. The second move, which took place six months later, was a happier occasion because I was receiving my “break” in that I was hired to work in my hometown in Tennessee at The Paris Post-Intelligencer. This gave me a chance to gain real-world job experience in my field along with the added benefit of allowing me to temporarily live off my parents’ optimism, not to mention their food.

Two years later, when it proved that life in my hometown was far too narrow a sliver of the “real world” to have job experience in, I packed as much as the airplane weight limit would allow and went to Korea to teach English. I spent eight months in Suncheon before moving to Chuncheon. After eight months there I have now moved to Seoul, a city with 33 percent more population than New York City crammed into far less space.

Fortunately, I have a friend of the feminine persuasion among the locals in Chuncheon, someone who uses the English nickname of “Catherine” and volunteered to spend some of her free time this week helping me to pack my belongings into containment units suitable for transport. Having a girlfriend who can help with this was a very providential thing for me; while I am knowledgeable enough about certain things such as history, political science and English rhetoric, my abilities in regards to home maintenance and spatial arrangements are what many experts would classify as “quasi-retardation.”

“Is that how you’re going to fold your clothes?” she asked as I emptied my dressers of their contents.

“This would be easier if we lived in the Choseun Dynasty and all I had was a set of working clothes and a Korean traditional hanbok to carry,” I replied.

“Didn’t you call the internet company to disconnect your service?” Catherine asked me as I slipped my electronics into their carrying cases.

“You know, if I had the support of 51 senators and 170 congressmen I could make someone else do this for me,” I replied. “Maybe I should get it attached as a rider to something they’d never vote against, like a congressional pay raise.”

“How are you going to fit all those shoes into that box with all of those clothes?” she asked.

“‘How are you going to fit all of those shoes into that box along with all of those clothes’ would flow better as a sentence,” I said.

After about an hour of packing, I always start to think it will take a miracle as flamboyant as any the Almighty performed in the Old Testament to fit all of my belongings into the allotted number of boxes and suitcases. I’m happy to tell you that if this weekend is any indication, once again the sun has risen in the west and the US will lead the medal count at the next Winter Olympics.

In the midst of moving, I always hope that my next locale will be a bit more stable, and allow me to stay in place awhile longer. However, I guess that having to pack your things because you’re moving up is a bit like growing older, in that it beats the alternative.

After a year-and-a-half of teaching English in Korea, former Post-Intelligencer reporter Rob York now works in the textbook development office for the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in Seoul. You may contact him at or visit

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]