By Rebecca Brower, ETA ’15-’17
Lurking somewhere in my memories there’s an image: a shorthaired, plumpish woman in her mid-forties, she holds my hands, pulling me forward, and supports me as I lay on my back. Then she lets go, and my body holds its place for a second but soon succumbs to the weakness of my skinny, six-year-old stature and sinks. Water rushes in my mouth, up my nose; I cough and spit in panic as my arms flail, and my toes reach for the bottom…
My wet feet slap the tile floor rhythmically as I exit the stairwell leading down and out of the shower room. I tug self-consciously at my bathing suit as I move, trying in vain to make the fit feel more comfortable.
As I follow my work-friend, Mikyeong, I begin to wonder again what rational part of my mind thought this was a good idea. For the entirety of my life I was a self-proclaimed “bad swimmer”, and starting in middle school, I routinely avoided pools whenever possible due to adolescent concerns over body image.
I had agreed to do the 6:30 am swimming class with Mikyeong largely because she had been relentless in her pursuits to convince me to go. Although she had assured me that there would be a teacher, I didn’t believe that it would be enough to quell my disdain for the pool. Ultimately, she managed to seal the deal with the point that swimming would be good for my back, which was weak from a recent injury.
Just before reaching the pool’s edge, Mikyeong interrupted my unsettled thoughts as she turned to point out a man standing there, intently observing as early arrivers swam laps to warm-up. I stood quietly beside Mikyeong as she hastily introduced me to my new swim instructor, followed by a quick“잘 부탁드립니다1.” She then looked at me and flashed one last encouraging smile before sneaking three lanes over to the advanced group, where her husband was already waiting for her.
Left standing on my own, I glanced nervously towards the teacher. He was clearly just as uncomfortable with the situation as I was, but still nodded with a smile and gestured for me to hop into the pool with the rest of the beginner class.
I stood tilting my head to the side, curiously watching the spot where my teacher had just gone underwater, and then it hit me. He had pointed at himself, and then downward, because he wanted me to follow so he could demonstrate something. I hastily threw my goggles on and ducked under to see what I was supposed to be watching.
I learned very quickly in the first week that my new swimming teacher knew little English outside of “go”, “okay”, “stop”, “slow”, and “kick.” Our communication was further hindered by the fact that I couldn’t understand much of his Korean, as it was too fast. The language barrier clearly bothered him, as I could see him take a deep breath and hesitate each time he approached me, but it didn’t matter much to me – at first. I didn’t think that my swimming adventure would last more than a month, at most.
However, I noticed quickly that swimming did provide substantial relief from my back pain, so I gradually became a more willing participant. At the same time, I began to notice how hard my instructor was working to teach me. Gestures became our primary method of communicating. I would sometimes learn by mimicking others in my lane as they followed his instructions, after which he could correct me simply by repositioning an arm or a leg. By the end of September, I trusted him enough to teach me what I had always tried to avoid, and found myself signing up to do the class again in October.
There was a touch of edgy exasperation in my swimming instructor’s voice as he quickly switched from Korean to English. In response, I halted my arm swing and floated on my back as he grabbed an arm, shaking it and saying forcefully “힘 빼고2” while he poked me in the neck to readjust my posture.
I had only been learning backstroke for about a week, but had probably already whacked my teacher in the chest, and maybe the face, more than a couple of times while he was trying to help me. Despite the beating, he still remained largely patient and always diligent. He floated along behind me for a few strokes- catching each arm as it swept up over my head, directing it as it entered the water again -before letting me go to help the next person coming down the lane.
My swimming teacher stood next to me grinning and talking defensively to a group of 아주마4s, who had just been giggling (and still were) while watching him talk to a native English speaker in Korean. Despite the assurance behind his words, I couldn’t help but wonder how much he really believed that I understood him.
It was my first time seeing my teacher in two months, as he had swapped times with the second swimming teacher in Uiseong (which they did every three months), and had been teaching the evening class. Most of my first week in the new time slot was like class in the fall, where my teacher still looked like he was giving himself a pep-talk before addressing me. However, after only a few days, the visible worry started to fade as he set out to prove to my new classmates that I really could understand him.
My teacher listened patiently to my broken Korean sentences as I told him what I had learned in the past two months; breaststroke and the kick-portion of butterfly. Following the explanation, he responded with an energetic “okay, go!”, and watched intently while I waved through the water. After correcting my head position, he taught me the arm-stroke and timing to go with the kick before backing off to observe from afar; allowing me some time to work at it on my own.
Two others were already climbing out of the pool where my instructor was pointing, indicating that he wanted me to join.
The pool was all of probably four feet deep, so there wasn’t much true diving that could be taught, just a graceful, head-first entrance that was a little shy of a belly-flop. After my first plunge, I climbed out to give it another go while my teacher started giving feedback. His gestures and words weren’t making sense to me at first, and he could see it in my blank expression, so he climbed out of the pool next to me to better demonstrate. He first gave me an exaggeration of what I was doing wrong, followed by a “no” and then a show of what it should look like.
Since the giggling-incident in January, he had grown more relaxed and confident when addressing me, and could better sense when I couldn’t follow him. He also seemed to understand now that, along with the gestures, if he slowed down his Korean explanations and used simpler phrases, there was no need at all for him to stress over English.
A new image starts to paint itself in my memories; it is of a man in his mid-thirties, with a frizzy mop of black hair and the body of a lean and fit college kid. He’s sitting on the edge of the pool, speaking sentences from which I can translate too few words to wholly grasp the meaning, but his movements and gestures fill in the missing pieces. I test out the new advice and return to where the man is sitting. He gives a shy smile and one word in English: “good!”, before he adds approvingly “많이 늘었어요.”5 I return the smile with a satisfied grin and a couple of enthusiastic words of my own: “Good teacher!”
Rebecca “Becky” Brower is an ETA at Uiseong Elementary School and Danchon Elementary School in Uiseong, Gyeongsangbuk-do.