Written by Hana Lee

"Raised Hands" by Andrew Cheng. Taken in Pyongsong, North Korea.

“Raised Hands” by Andrew Cheng. Taken in Pyongsong, North Korea.

“그동안 쌤한테 궁금하거나 물어보고 싶었던 것 있니[1. “So, do you have any questions for me?”]?” I asked in perfect Korean.

A chorus of “daebak” and “menboong[2. “Amazing” and “mind blown” in Korean]” filled the air.

The students incredulously asked, “So, you understood what we were saying all along?”

“Yes, I did.” I gave a knowing chuckle while eyeing the students that had given me the most trouble all year.

Myung Jin, one of my angels, just kept staring in disbelief, muttering, “Really, menboong. So every time… I just made a fool of myself using body language… menboong.”

I laughed as I let the news sink in to the first of many classes in which I’d reveal my big secret.

Another student, shyly looking down at his desk, quietly gave me the first apology of the few I would receive. “I’m sorry…”

This exchange was all in Korean, a language I had spoken since childhood.

Until high school, my sister, two cousins and I were the only four Koreans in my school district in rural Pennsylvania. I lacked a sense of belonging and, as a result, I resented my parents for immigrating to America and settling down in an area where we stood out like sore thumbs. Until I had the opportunity to converse with my new Fulbright friends about performing race and microaggressions, I could never quite understand nor explain the reason why I had felt so out of place despite the kindness and friendliness of my childhood friends.

I remember actively working to remove myself from the confines of the model minority stereotype. I hid my good grades and only showed my friends the lower grades I got on my assignments in elementary school. Over time, I successfully separated myself from being seen as the stereotypical Asian, for better or worse. However, I was still Asian, still Korean, in many ways. I had grown to love and accept my Korean-ness over the years, and I even proudly shared some of the food and language with my friends. The Fulbright grant was an opportunity to reconcile my complicated identity as a Korean-American.

I wasn’t so naïve as to think that I would be fully accepted as a “Korean Korean.” I knew from previous visits to Korea that Korean-Americans were often stereotyped visitors who received both undeserved respect and unwarranted contempt. Settling down in Korea would be different from briefly visiting, I told myself; yet, I still vastly underestimated the challenges I would encounter.

When I got to my placement at a technical high school in Naju, my co-teacher asked me not to disclose that I could read, write, speak or understand Korean. He wanted me to present myself to the students as “wholly American,” something I have never been, even in America.

After meeting my students, I understood my co-teacher’s request better. Many of them showed a minimal grasp of basic academic subjects, even math and Korean, and had already given up on themselves and their situations. At times they seemed like hopeless cases in the education-driven Korean system. Some of them would get into fights because they felt the need to challenge and disregard authority through open hostility. But even though they were simply not cut out for a typical classroom setting and couldn’t make complex sentences, my students innovatively maximized their minimal knowledge of English, kidding around with me by saying, “I love you… Joke!” or offering me and my friends cigarettes when we caught them smoking nearby the school.

In the beginning, because they saw a teacher who looked Korean, my students did not make an effort to learn or use English. I realized that my students would only use English with me if they truly believed I was not Korean in any way. They could not fully grasp the concept of a Korean-American. To them, I had to be either one or the other; I couldn’t be both. I spent the entirety of the first semester convincing my students that I was legitimately and fully American and not a “real” Korean, though I am undeniably as Korean as I am American. In efforts to downplay my Korean side further, I forced an audible accent on the rare occasion I spoke my normally perfect Korean and even actively butchered students’ names.

The staff knew of my fluency because the principal had announced it on my first day,  but I did my best to honor my co-teacher’s request in the presence of students. Because I spent most of my time in the main gyomushil[3. Teachers’ office] where students always bustled about, I often had to pretend that I couldn’t understand the other teachers when they approached me first. Whenever they spoke to me in Korean, I just looked intently at them as I smiled and nodded with a confused look on my face, trying to convey my understanding. They would just awkwardly laugh and back away, unaware that I had been asked to feign ignorance. This deception made me feel isolated, fake and undeservedly incompetent, and I lost many opportunities to develop relationships with my co-workers during my first semester.

I eventually found a safe space, the female teachers’ lounge, to speak Korean with the female teachers and establish relationships with them during our second semester. Until this point, I had felt so alone in this quest to convince my students of my American identity; some of the teachers, remembering the principal’s initial announcement, would honestly tell their students that I was fluent in Korean without realizing that I was working so hard to convince my students otherwise.  I recruited the female teachers onto my side and, though I only spoke Korean with them, they helped cover for me and squelched any rumors or skepticism among my students.

Through my budding relationships with my co-workers, I gained a sense of peace with my Korean-American identity and my place in the school community; however, my self-identity as a teacher was still being challenged. I was plagued by guilt at the idea that I was somehow promoting American language, media and culture in a supremacist way because I was portraying myself as someone who didn’t feel the need to learn or understand Korean language or culture. As valuable as a second language can be, I wanted my students to be proud and knowledgeable of Korean first and foremost. But I couldn’t expect my students to own and take pride in their heritage while I was struggling to find the delicate balance between the two cultures myself.

Maybe even worse, because I presented myself as someone who couldn’t even attempt to learn the language of the country in which I lived, I became a bad role model for my students. Some of the students would wonder aloud why it was that I couldn’t speak any Korean though I was living in Korea. At some level, this underlying sense of “she’s not trying, so why should we?” manifested in their attitudes toward learning.

The first semester they would say inappropriate and hurtful comments not only to test my Korean abilities, but also to get a rise out of me and observe my reaction. They never misbehaved when the co-teacher was present, but as soon as I was left alone, the students would begin to stare me down, sing at the top of their lungs and taunt me. I was so overwhelmed by the end of the class that I could never remember what had actually happened. Everything was a blur, and I left class with a bad taste in my mouth.

The school had little to no expectations for its students, which made it difficult to create an environment of excellence and respect in my own classroom. With time, I learned to take things less personally, ignore their disruptive outbursts and make the best of whatever they offered me that day. Eventually, these incidents slowly decreased, and I chose to change my main objective from teaching my students English to simply showing them that I cared.

In retrospect, I should have just used Korean freely as a tool to relate to my students. At the time, I was too worried about what the school would think and how my co-teachers would react. During my final week of teaching, I conducted all of my classes only in Korean, and I felt connections strengthen in those one-hour classes in ways I couldn’t through the whole past year despite my best efforts — a bittersweet end to a rough year.

Though I struggled through my year, all of these challenges taught me that there is nothing I can’t overcome with time, experience and effort. My students reminded me every day that there is more to people than what meets the eye, and influenced me to try to think things through from their perspective before growing impatient or making judgments. I hope to remember and apply these lessons as I return to Fulbright Korea this year for three more months at an academically rigorous high school. I’ve come back to give myself a second shot: another chance to redeem my identity as a teacher and to own my identity as a Korean-American.

Hana Lee is a 2012-2014 ETA at Namsan High School in Busan.