A Different Kind of Conversation

By Lisa Chang, ETA ’16-’18

I punched in the key code to my door and pushed down the knob. Dragging my sweaty body, I clumsily slipped out of my shoes. The lights in the house were on, which meant that someone was back, but instead of the usual accented calling of my name, there was no response to my entrance.“엄마?” I quietly called out for my host mom.

“어, 리사.” Oh, Lisa. There was a weariness to her voice, probably from another long day of work. I walked towards the dining table, where she was eating dinner alone. A few simple 반찬, side dishes, laid out as well as a small porcelain bottle and a narrow shot glass in front of her. “밥 먹었어?” Did you eat dinner? she asked.

“네, 먹었어요.” Yes, I ate. After living with her for ten months, this exchange had become a daily routine. She asked me about what I was going to do tomorrow with my day off, and what time I was leaving and returning to the house. With our language barrier, it seemed that the only thing we could confidently talk about was my daily plans. Whether I would stay at the house to eat lunch, what time I would return to be back for dinner, etc.

I was about to turn away to take a shower, when she mumbled. “오늘… 슬퍼.” Today… I’m sad.

This was different. She frequently told me how tired she felt after work, but she rarely blurted out her other emotions. Caught off guard, I managed to respond, “왜요?” Why?

“친구… 죽었어요.” My friend… died. Before I could say a word, she added, “자살.”

I didn’t know the word, so I awkwardly shuffled to my room to grab my phone and look up the translation. 엄마 turned back to her food and waited patiently for me to figure out her words. I tapped my phone a few times, then: Suicide.

I looked up, as she heaved a sigh. I wanted to say that I was sorry, but I knew that the Korean wouldn’t translate what it would otherwise convey in English. Instead, I walked to the other side of the dining table and took a seat opposite from her. “괜찮아요, 엄마?” Are you okay?

“네, 괜찮아요. 초등학교 중학교 친구.” Yes, I’m okay. She was my elementary and middle school friend. She simplified her language for my comprehension.

“친하셨어요?” Were you close?

She nodded as she poured out a clear liquid from the porcelain bottle into the shot glass.

“친구… 가족 있었어요?” Did your friend have a family?

She went on to explain. I grasped a few words. 남편. 아이들. Husband. Children.

“어…” I nodded and pretended to understand everything she said, but by now she could read my expression to tell whether I truly comprehended everything. There was no need to pretend. Regardless, she went on.

“In Korea, suicide happens often.”

“Yes, I’ve heard.”

“Three, four of my friends have died.” She spoke more than usual, the alcohol swirling in her body.

“All of them… suicide?”

“No, two of them committed suicide. One of them died in a car accident. One of them had 암.”

Another word I didn’t understand. I mumbled the word as I typed it in my translation app. Cancer.

“A lot of Koreans have 울증. Some days I also feel the same way.”

Again, I typed in the new vocabulary. Three small green squares appeared and disappeared on the phone screen as I waited for the translation. Melancholia, hypochondria, depression.

I thought back to the first week of school, when I attempted to wake up a sleeping student in class. My co-teacher in that class came over to gently stop me. She explained that the student often sleeps in class, and that he probably has depression, so I shouldn’t disturb him. I wasn’t sure what I was taken aback by more: the depression, or her nonchalance when she explained this in front of the very student she was talking about.

“Recently, one of the teachers at school told me that a third-grade student tried to commit suicide. But he didn’t die.”

“At our school?” I nodded. I expected a gasp from 엄마, but she merely blinked and nodded.

I remember hearing the news a week ago, when the teacher told me with a hushed tone. “I tell them all the time that grades are not everything, but to them grades are everything.” The teacher explained. As the school counselor, she had seen too many similar cases of self-harm, depression and self-loathing. But words seem to carry little significance to students, I thought. It’s difficult to comprehend what else matters when you’re studying for most of the day and striving for the best grades. What could I do, besides smile and say 화이팅 (fighting) as much as I could? What could I say, when the students shrank when I approached them with English?

“Lisa, you must also feel it too, right?” 엄마 asked.

“Me?”

I thought back to a few months ago, when after a long day of work I had confided in my host mother with my even more limited Korean. 오늘 우울했어요. Today I was depressed. I didn’t mean to say that I was depressed, but merely sad from a stressful day. But somehow I learned the Korean word for “depressed” before I learned the word for “sad.” My host mother responded with much concern, and seeing that I couldn’t understand, much less respond to all her questions, she later called my co-teacher to check in with me.

“I don’t get depressed. I get sad sometimes, but not depressed,” I responded again in broken Korean.

“Really? Lisa’s so healthy.”

A few moments of silence as she resumed to picking at her food. I tried piecing together a response. 하나님 is “God” in Korean. 도와주셔요. He helps me. But I couldn’t quite piece together and say my thoughts quickly before she tried offering me some soju from the porcelain glass, which I had just noticed had delicate and elegant carvings on it. I politely declined. It was a present for me, she explained. But it doesn’t taste good. She quickly made a sucking noise with her tongue as she grimaced and moved the bottle away from me.

A few minutes of silence. I picked up one of our host dogs as the other host dog had already leaped onto her lap and started licking the edge of the table. She reprimanded it, and the host dog stopped. We changed the subject to the dogs, and how expensive their medical bills were. Eventually though, we ran out of things to say.

Go shower and rest,” she told me.

I nodded and slowly got up from my chair, unsure whether I should stay longer to keep her company, or if she wanted some alone time.

I emerged from the bathroom 15 minutes later. The lights were all turned off and there was a silence emptier than usual.



Lisa Chang is a 2016-2018 ETA at Chungbuk National University High School in Cheongju, Chungcheongbuk-do.