By Katherine Moncure, ETA ’16-’17
The apartment is small. I tend to occupy a chair in the living room, hoping that somehow, my sheer physical presence will foster a family connection where other efforts have failed. My host father sits on the couch in the living room, watching news videos on a tablet. He wears pajamas in the house – a white tank and loose boxers. He slouches against the pillows, one leg hanging off the edge of the cushion. Something about this makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s his hand that rests, unintentionally I hope, very close to his crotch. Perhaps it’s knowing that though he can relax, I can never sit this way in his presence. My shoulders are hunched. In the five months I have lived here, I haven’t seen anyone hug.
On the morning I move out of my homestay, I leave a thank-you note in my empty bedroom. My host family and I are on bad terms, and part of me feels like I’m thanking them for more than they really gave. I’m still hoping this can be an olive branch of sorts, so I can leave the situation in a positive way. But I’m not sure if the family will read it.
As my coteacher and I bring my bags to the car, my host mother is all smiles and warmth, far friendlier than she has been in weeks. She gently places her hand on my back and leads me toward the door. “Be thankful for the people in your life,” Jiyoon says sweetly, her hand still resting on me. I smile too, feeling like we both want the same thing. “Yes! I left a note upstairs, really, thank you for everything.” I place my hand on her arm, but she snaps it away, her smile faltering into a grimace for a half second. I now realize what we’re doing here. This isn’t a conversation, this is a show. This is saving face.
A young couple is in front of me at the bus stop. I can tell that they’re high school students because they’re both in uniforms – the boy wears a dark brown blazer under his backpack and the girl is in a cream plaid skirt. They stand close to each other, their hips touching. The boy reaches his arm around the girl and pats the side of her head a couple times, the way you might pat a dog before you know whether or not it’s friendly. I wonder how much time they have together, outside of school. There’s a pause, and then he keeps patting, lifting his hand higher than necessary each time. She leans her head into the crook of his neck but her shoulders don’t really relax, and she pulls her head back up, like maybe that was a bad idea. He continues to pat her, his hand traveling up to the top of her skull, then back down to the outer edge of her arm. His hand pats its way to her hip, dangerously close to her butt, just before someone steps in front of me and breaks my view. I’m both thankful and slightly disappointed. The bus pulls up, they separate, and the girl steps on. I follow.
The Space Between
This couple is older, and they stand in front of me as we descend the escalator. The guy reaches his hand as if to brush away his girlfriend’s hair, but instead he just brushes the air right next to her ear. His fingers hover there, moving up and down repeatedly as they talk. Is he afraid to touch her?
On Tuesdays we study Korean at A Twosome Place, a coffee shop that claims to serve “sensuous dessert.” Today, my seat faces the wall. Louisa quietly leans toward me and says in a hushed voiced, “Don’t stare, but look at the couple behind you.” I try to pretend like I’m turning to toward the window and not the boy and girl sitting right next to it, although as I glance at them, I realize they wouldn’t notice if I stared anyway. The two of them are transfixed by each other’s faces. Both have their arms extended, and they simultaneously caress each other’s cheeks, oblivious to everything around them. “They’ve been at it for at least a half hour,” Louisa adds. I wonder why they’re not embarrassed to act like this in public, until I realize that both of them probably live with their parents. I think about my host family’s apartment and how it’s small enough for two people to have a conversation across its entire length. And there aren’t exactly any inviting bushes or dark corners in Iksan, or really any spots even close to private. I watch the boy twirl his finger through his girlfriend’s hair. This must be the next best thing.
A lot of my students hold each other the way people in romantic relationships do. One girl comes up to my desk to ask for tape, dragging her friend along with her. Her friend hangs around her shoulders like a backpack, head resting on her neck, slightly sleepy. I hand them the tape. They shuffle back to their desks, still attached, until they both collapse into separate chairs.
I’m on a bus that passes the outer edge of my school. It’s Saturday, so the third grade students are there for extra study time, and I recognize three of them in navy blue skirts on the sidewalk. The bus slows down, and one girl has her face buried into the others. I realize she’s crying. As both of her friends wrap their arms around her, her torso crumples, slightly shuddering while she leans into them. They stroke her long, black hair that tumbles down her back, saying nothing. The bus starts to pull away and I don’t know what is making her upset, but I hurt for her. Her friends continue to hold her though, letting her fall in a way that feels rare with other people here. My students aren’t always great at communicating in English, but as they move out of sight, I couldn’t be prouder of them.
I don’t have be at school today, but Seung Hyun and I meet anyway to have tea. She is my closest Korean friend, but every time we leave it feels abrupt, parting with a short wave or a, “Oh here’s my classroom! Have a good afternoon!” Today she walks with me to the school entrance gate and as we say goodbye, I open my arms, inviting her in. We hug. It’s short and almost a formality, but it’s comfortable. We both smile as we walk away.
Katherine Moncure is a 2016-2017 ETA at Weongwang Girls’ High School in Iksan, Jeollabuk-do.
- In psychology, a microexpression is a quick, involuntary facial expression that often occurs in high stakes situations where the individual has something to lose or gain. Microexpressions can happen when the person is trying to conceal genuine feelings. ↩
- Insa; Korean etiquette – greeting/saying goodbye ↩