Sunday, November 25, 2007


Teaching the Teacher a Thing or Two

It was a Thursday night in my Korean language class at Seoul National University. Like every other week, we had each been partnered with one other classmate and required to produce a script, written in Korean, and then act it out for the rest of the class to watch.

However, this week was atypical, in that we had no class on Monday because of a national holiday. This gave us a little more time to work on our role-plays, but the unfortunate side-effect was that we had two classes in a row on Thursdays.

On Mondays, our instructor was always teacher Chae, a young woman who embodies many of the endearing characteristics of today’s Korean female: bilingual, pleasant and scared of pigeons.

If it were teacher Chae’s duty to assign us our partners for the role-play, she would always gave us the last 10-15 minutes of class to work on our script so that we could spend the next few days memorizing it. If we were to perform in her class, she would give us about five minutes to practice it first.

But with no Monday class, we both received and enacted our assignment under the watch of teacher Hahm, a man in his early 40s who wasn’t in the habit of giving us time to either prepare or practice our scripts in his class.

Therefore, after using e-mail to communicate with my partner for a day or two as to what we wanted to say, then spending a little more time translating that into accurate Korean, we had one or maybe two days to actually remember all the words.

So, I did my best to mentally tie each sentence in our script to a series of forceful gestures and exclamations, but there was no time for me and Daniel, a graduate school student from Switzerland, to actually work together beforehand.

When it came time to perform, my name was called first, perhaps because, in my over-exuberance to register for Korean language classes my name ended up first on our attendance record.

During our enactment, I would pretend to be asleep, until Daniel came into our classroom and told me that it was time to wake up complete my chores for the day. We would then compare and contrast our schedules for that day, with me ultimately concluding that his was better.

I remembered many of the important things, such as to: A) portray the requisite amount of bewilderment that befits someone who is asking questions like, “What time is it?” and “What day is it?” and B) appear thoughtful and contemplative while speaking, thus disguising the time required to translate English thoughts into the Korean spoken word.

Under pressure, with the whole class watching, I had considerably more difficulty remembering some other critical details, such as A) the suffix that identifies the topic noun, B) the suffix that corresponds with the subject noun, C) the suffix that matches with the object noun, and D) why the Korean people hate me so much that they had to spend years thinking of ways to beset me with this suffix onslaught.

Every time our role-plays end, I hear my classmates’ light applause. We always applaud in a less than thunderous way for our classmates presentations, signifying that we know something interesting was just portrayed, even if we lack the comprehension skills necessary to discern what that something precisely was.

Each time, I head back to my seat, waiting for my teacher’s constructive criticism. On this occasion, 50 percent of my expectations were met.

“Robert, I like your acting,” teacher Hahm says, “I like it more than your Korean.”

I recognize his method: sarcasm is a useful tool when talking to presidents, people who want to be president, and regular folks who insist on sharing “insights” which one apparently achieves after completing an MTO (Master of the Obvious) degree. However, any good performer knows that if you use too much sarcasm too soon you won’t have an audience left.

In fact, teacher Hahm’s remark triggers a rush of memories: the times he pointed at what an obviously confused student was working on and said, without a trace of pity, “Wrong again!”; the times he said “Oh, several mistakes!” with all the relish of a tabby cat descending upon a wounded mouse.

“I really don’t like him sometimes,” I confided to Daniel.

“Yeah, me neither,” he responded.

We are, of course, Westerners visiting his country, and if this was the environment his generation learned in we ought to understand that. However, shouldn’t he understand that our teachers don’t talk to us that way, at least not when we’re obviously trying to learn?

Until I could think of a way to make this clear to him, all I could do was sit, stew and listen to his lectures. Then, as if in an answer to a prayer I hadn’t yet offered, he began telling us how to address someone who knows “many informations.”

Upon hearing him say this, I couldn’t wait for the break we would take after the first hour of class was completed, and not just because they serve snacks in the hallway. I may not be able to explain the complexities of intercultural norms and how they relate to the teaching of second languages, but I could certainly make him remember how hard it is to learn a foreign tongue in the first place.

“’A lot of information,’” I said as I approached his desk. He responded by staring at me, blankly..

“It’s not ‘many informations,’” I expounded, “because all the information that a person has is contained in a single unit.”

“Oh,” he said, nodding while his imperious demeanor seemed to shrink before my eyes. We discussed grammar rules for a moment, then he thanked me and I said, “Any time,” clearly insinuating that I was always willing to “help.”

However, I never had to again, because he was a lot more sympathetic from then on. I hope any student of mine would do the same for me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Harmonic Convergence

Following the Federer-Sampras exhibition match in Seoul, they wore hanbok the Korean traditional outfit. It's not every day that two of one's greatest interests converge in such a way.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


You're Only as Old as Who You Compare Yourself To

Textbooks in each of the SDA Language Institute’s classes provide Korean students with practice questions they can ask each other. In the lowest level, it starts simply, with queries like “What is your name?” and “How are you this morning?”

At the highest level students are ready to discuss more advanced topics, which they sometimes have no familiarity with. In one of these cases, they like to hear how an answer should sound, so they direct the question at someone whom they are sure is able to understand it, namely, the teacher.

“Have you ever experienced one-sided love?” my student Anastasia asked me one evening during class last year in Chuncheon.

After a brief definition of the term, I said that, well, yes, I had experienced it, but not yet on that particular day, at least as of 7:30 p.m.

“I never have,” she replied.

“Well, you’re young,” I said.

“I’m older than you,” she pointed out.

And indeed she is. She was born in the same year as me but in a month preceding September. I know that many of my students are older than me; it’s just that it’s easy for me to forget that while I stand firmly on the “teacher” side of the classroom.

Also, many Korean students are encouraged by their parents to postpone getting a full-time job during high school/college years, and are instead encouraged to go to after-school institutes all day.

Therefore, I’ve often found myself listening to people who are older than me express their hopes of finding that first significant other or full-time job. Many young women in this country have no greater concern than maintaining their state of quasi-anorexia, and the young men have taken up English in the hopes of meeting foreigners to play online video games with.

Chuncheon was full of experiences just like these, and not just because of the students. The second-youngest of the foreign teachers was nine years my senior, and the oldest had two decades on me. It was easy for me to compare myself favorably to each of them and cheerfully imagined what heights I’d have achieved when I reached their age.

Then, suddenly, I was given a job at SDA’s central office writing and editing the textbooks. I had been “kicked upstairs,” as my Chuncheon co-workers put it, and I was going places at a relatively young age.

Actually, I was going to place where I’d feel as though I was aging rapidly. The other foreigners in the office are younger than me. Some of those who work in the administration office playfully refer to me with the words heung (if they are male) and opa (if they aren’t), both of which are words Koreans use to refer to their “older brother.”

Then, in an event that I had never anticipated, I reached the age of 28 in the ninth month of this year. This is the age at which many professional athletes begin their career downturn. This is a year older than Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones and several other notable drug users were when they died.

Though they achieved a kind of recognition I have not and saw things I probably never will, they probably never got to experience the realizations I am now partaking of. These insights include: “Wow, those things I wanted to do before I turned 30 have to be done, like, next year!”; “Hey, if I eat a whole pizza every week, my pants may not fit like they used to!”; and “If I’m not careful during exercise, I won’t be able to walk properly tomorrow!”

Many of you may, right now, may want to tell me to count my blessings, wishing that you could trade ages with me. Well, even those of you who are now much more advanced in age than I have got to admit that 28 is one of the least interesting times in a person’s life.

“When I was 16, I saw my first concert,” many of you are probably recalling. “When I was 32, my first child was born.”

“When I was 28,” you’re probably thinking, “I once confused my dental insurance card with my car insurance card, because one was sky blue and the other was azure.”

The only real conflicts of this age are internal: on my right shoulder I can sense a little man with neatly-combed hair and a business suit telling me save more of my money, go to sleep earlier at night and actually start reading the labels on my food before I buy it. On the other shoulder is a little young adult with Bermuda shorts and hair he hasn’t fixed yet because he got of his little bed about four minutes earlier.

“Dude!” he says. “I know it sounds reasonable when they tell you to eat something besides cereal for supper, but don’t listen! Next thing you know, they’ll be telling you to drive a station wagon and make snap judgments about the kind of music your children listen to!”

Perhaps he has a point. Korean society may cause young people to grow up later than we do in the West, but maybe that means they start worrying about being too old at a later age than we do.

Also, since I’ve come to Korea, I have seen almost no one driving a station wagon.

Maybe that’s not a coincidence.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I'm Terrible, and You?

Every day that I entered this classroom in Chuncheon, full of pre-teen Korean students, I said what the SDA Language Institute had trained me to say: “Hello, everyone.”

In their still-maturing ESL voices, they would reply in unison: “Hello, teacher.”

I continued with my orchestrated introductory greeting, saying, “How are you today?”

Korean children are also trained in how to respond, though I have no idea by whom. “I’m fine, thank you, and you?” they would say, enunciating each syllable with all the enthusiasm of a middle-aged male on his way to get his male health inspected.

It was one of the best-performing children’s classes I ever taught. There were only about 10 of them, but nearly all them attended each day, and the Korean teacher that I was assisting during my time there was ensuring that they prepared for class every time.

That’s why it came as a surprise when, one day, I asked them about their general condition, and nearly all of them responded, “Terrible.”

Okay, I thought. I guess I am about to give them a test.

Their response was the same the next day. I must have appeared confused, because the Korean teacher told me their response was probably because she was giving them a test after I left.

Even so, I resolved to vary my question from day-to-day.

“How is your teacher today?” I asked.

“Terrible,” they replied.

“How is the weather today?” I queried, pointing outside to a cloudless sky.

“Terrible,” they opined.

Finally, I went into class on a Monday when I was certain there was no test, and the lesson would be easy, and I asked them, “So … how was your weekend?”

The loudest reply came from Blake, a boy with glasses and longish hair, who clearly delighted in unloading his state of mind upon me.

“Terrible!” he shouted, standing halfway out of his desk.

I threw up my hands in capitulation. “Why?” I asked, because I could think of nothing else to add.

“Always terrible!” he explained.

At what point in life did you recognize all the work and drudgery that life had in store for you? By the age of 17, I’d realized that getting a good job meant doing well in college, and doing well in college would be much more likely if I started preparing in high school. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get that job which would require me to work 50 or so hours a week in an effort to stay ahead of the competition, whether they be in my hometown or in some place like Delhi.

At that moment, the sheer magnitude of exertion that I’d have to do in the future set in, and had a profound effect on my life: I was overcome with the desire to nap, a pastime I treasure to this day.

For Korean children, I suspect that this realization sets in earlier. From the time they enter their Asiatic equivalent of kindergarten, they are instructed to memorize facts. These facts may concern English, or maybe math, or even music, but all of them are considered necessary in order to achieve a high score on the university entrance exam.

A good score on the exam means the chance to attend a good university, which means a chance to get a respectable form of employment. A lackluster score on the exam means attending a less-prestigious school. For many of these, that means remaining unemployed until your late-20s and living with parents who daily offer wise counsel such as, “Why don’t you get a job?”

Blake and his classmates were a smart bunch; smart enough to know what life had in store for them. This was just their way of expressing their discontent.

Many people I know would have told them to think positive and to cheer up. “Many people” also went to see Saw IV on its opening weekend, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing to do. Nobody in a bad mood ever had their sentiment improved by someone who simply told them to feel better.

People who feel unhappy want you to understand how they feel, and give them a reason to feel better.

As class ended the day after Blake’s impassioned exclamation, I wrote a new word on the board. “Repeat after me,” I instructed, “‘Horrible.’” They did so, dutifully.

“So tomorrow, if you feel bad, you can tell me that you feel horrible,” I said.

The next day I asked them, “How are you today?”

“Horrible!” they said, passionately.

At the end of that class, I wrote the word ‘awful’ on the board. The following day, the word was “lousy.” Many of the children pronounced it “loos-ey,” but those who said it correctly were given candy.

This continued until the end of class. If I ever forgot, the Korean teacher would remind me to teach them a new word before I left.

On the last day of class, the foreign teachers’ main duty is to pass out the student superlative awards. First came the awards for perfect attendance.

I said each award winners name and he/she came to claim their prize.

“How do you feel?” I asked each one.

“Grim!” they replied, faces beaming.

The exception, however, was Blake. As the shocked recipient of awards for both perfect attendance and the highest grade in class, he appeared unsure of how to answer the question.

“Good,” he finally stuttered forth.

He could probably learn more synonyms for that. Hopefully another teacher will take the time to show him.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


The Only Thing to Fear is Diane Sawyer

Perhaps the best way to be safe from any possible threat is to feel unsafe from it at all times.

For an example: by the age of 9, my curiosity toward all the things that life had to offer had led me to fall down the stairs of our two-story home, fall through its roof, endure repeated bee stings, set multiple things on fire and experience repeated injuries to the head and other extremities due to bicycles and/or pet Labrador retrievers.

Suddenly, at that age, I was afraid.

I believed that the monsters from movie commercials I’d seen lived in the tall grass on the farm where my dad worked. Of course, my parents wouldn’t let me watch the actual movies because they were too scary, and so my media intake was limited to news shows and the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Then, I saw one of Primetime Live’s special reports, where Diane Sawyer told me about serial killers that broke into people’s homes at night, and became convinced that there were people like this in the woods outside my house.

I also was certain every dark cloud in the sky had the potential to turn into one of those mile-wide tornadoes I’d read about in the encyclopedia, capable of destroying my whole house, including our TV set and VCR.

This pre-pubescent phase of paranoia lasted until I was nearly 12. Of course, I now know that my fears were unfounded, because my hometown of Paris, Tenn. was not and probably never will be interesting enough to attract serial killers, much less F5 tornadoes. However, in my defense, I did not experience any of the horrifying things that I was afraid of, nor did I fall off, get stung by get bit by much of anything.

So, in retrospect, I no longer believe that being afraid was the problem, it’s just that the fears I was preparing for at the time were misplaced. If, at that age, someone had given me reading/viewing material about federal student loans I might be in a better position now.

I didn’t know it when I was growing up, but one day most of my greatest fears would be getting lost. It was impossible to know this as a child, because, while living in rural Tennessee, we see the same buildings and primarily the same people every day. The buildings and the people therein change every few years due to graduations or changes in employment, but you only have to find your way there once.

Then, I moved to Chattanooga and began my preliminary attempts at joining the workforce. As an intern working for a city newspaper, I was required to travel to various places across a much larger municipality, many of which I had to reach by going through Bad Neighborhoods.

Diane Sawyer (or maybe Peter Jennings) had probably told me about Bad Neighborhoods in some place like Detroit many years earlier, but I had heard from other sources of news dispensation that there were some in nearly every city. Here, upstanding and mildly-paranoid people of moderate income could be stripped of their possessions; much like cattle can be stripped of their meat in piranha-infested waters (Thank you, Encyclopedia Britannica!).

Sometimes my editor would send me to Bad Neighborhoods to follow leads, giving me helpful advice that all newsmen can appreciate, like “Try not to stand out” and “Don’t get shot.”

It didn’t help that my Pontiac Grand Am, which had been in use since maybe eight years earlier, was now going through a phase that experienced automotive technicians refer to as “The Worthless Piece of Junk Phase.” It started overheating that May and continued to do so until September. During that summer it sprung an oil leak, it had to have its spark plugs changed twice, and had damages in parts I’d never heard of before or since (like the “coil pack”).

Almost every time I left the office, until I reached my university dorm room at night, I wondered if this would be the day the Grand Am led me no further than to the exact address of a Bad Neighborhood and then decided she’d need a breather.

However, thanks in part to my constant worrying, it never happened.

It’s now been a little more than two years since I started fretting about the things that could go wrong in Korea. My first concern was that I’d get lost when I transferred flights in Chicago and that I’d somehow end up in a Bad Neighborhood there (which, according to some sources, make Bad Neighborhoods in Chattanooga look like Tiger Woods’ living room).

My latest is that I’ll get held up during my hour-long, thrice-transferring subway trip to my Korean class in downtown Seoul. Between me and every train I must catch is a horde of middle- to elderly-aged Koreans who, in their leisurely gait, assume that since they aren’t in a hurry to be anywhere, no one behind them need be either.

What they don’t know, and what I do, is that for me to be late for one subway train might mean being late for the next, which might mean missing the bus that takes me directly to class, which means arriving late, which means failing to learn a critical grammar rule, which means never figuring out this entire confounded language, which means never moving up in the workplace, which means my children won’t grow up with all the advantages they need in the 21st century marketplace.

My worries haven’t failed me yet. Maybe some of you reading this are thinking that I need to lighten up, and that each step of the process needn’t be considered that critical.

Well, I’m afraid it is.

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