Written by Andrea Sohn ETA’11-13
My name is Andrea.
I remain convinced that my name is Andrea because it appears on the first page of any standard baby name book, the kind sold with all the latest tabloids in the supermarket checkout aisle. A name chosen for convenience’s sake — a name to fill the empty space on a birth certificate. Of course, my parents tend to say otherwise. “Don’t you know that ‘Andrea’ means ‘woman’? How can you pick a better name than that?” (But, really, who are we kidding? I’ve heard that some baby name references insist that ‘Andrea’ actually just means ‘man.’)
My name is Andrea. You can call me by my name.
In this place so far from home, names (traditionally) carry the potential to determine the course of an individual’s life. A good name has the capability of reflecting well on the character of its bearer and can bring good fortune long past childhood.
A bad name, on the other hand, may drive its bearer down an endless road of difficulty. The standard Korean name is composed of three characters (the first indicating surname, the second and third combining as a given name) that are almost always rooted in classical Chinese characters. Each character has its own meaning, and collectively, the characters must strike a perfect balance.
My name is Andrea. You can call me by my name. It is nice to meet you.
But nobody calls me that here — and therein lies the paradox.
It turns out that there is no defined concept of Mrs./Ms./Miss in Korea, much less a cultural desire to refer to individuals by name, and the underlying emphasis on hierarchy demands that those who are younger respectfully address those who are older by title. Take, for example, “aunt” — the English word that is designated for either parent’s sister or even the woman married to any of your uncles. But in Korean, 이모 is the title used for your mother’s sister, 고모 for your father’s sister, 외숙모 for the woman married to your mother’s brother, 작은엄마 for the woman married to your father’s younger brother, and 큰엄마 for the woman married to your father’s older brother. Who needs proper names when the language itself accounts for every possible person in your midst?
At the beginning of each semester, I begin my classes by introducing myself. “My name is Andrea. You can call me by my name. It is nice to meet you.” But at school, students only address their teachers by title. I am no exception; my name in the middle school classroom is Teacher (and for those students who are less enthusiastic about speaking English — 선생님, Teacher, sometimes shortened to 샘, or 쌤!, when they are feeling especially cheeky).
I will always remember the satisfied smirk that tickled my lips the first time one of my students called me Teacher. One word, two syllables and seven letters to embody position and recognition and status. A name infusing some kind of long-awaited significance into the years of compulsory education and sleepless nights in college — here was proof that I had accomplished something beyond what the middle school students in my midst were capable of at this exact moment, and the title was mine (all mine!).
Between classes, as teachers move back and forth from classroom to teacher’s office, teacher’s office to classroom, the hallway is a chorus of singsong “선생님, 선생님”s. But I always find myself hesitating to respond. Are they referring to me? The art teacher to my left? The other English teacher to my right? Teacher. It is a name of instant gratification, but the one name that is not even my own name.
Even when the seventh period bell rings to signal the end of the school day and the students scramble from their seats, fellow teachers stay behind in the teacher’s office to finish grading homework assignments and to engage in routine pleasantries. “선생님, 피곤해 보이세요. 선생님, 주말에 뭐 하실 거예요? 선생님, 내일 뵈요.” (“Teacher, you look tired. Teacher, what are your plans for the weekend? Teacher, see you tomorrow.”) I call my fellow teachers Teacher; they likewise call me Teacher.
“It’s okay,” I keep on saying, a self-conscious grin plastered to my face. “You can call me Andrea!” But the response is always the same. “엔듀리야. 발음이 참 어렵네요, 선생님.” (“An-dew-ree-ah. It’s quite difficult to pronounce, Teacher.”)
With my books arranged neatly on my desk and my school bag packed, I leave the teacher’s office behind. Before I have time to slip off my shoes at home, I am greeted with a “선생님, 안녕하세요,” (“Hello, Teacher,”) from my host mother, a “선생님, 오늘 일찍 오셨네요,” (“Teacher, you’re home a little earlier than usual today,”) from my host father, a “Teacher, what are you doing?” from my host sister.
“We’re not in school anymore, you know. You can call me Andrea!” My grin begins to fade as I watch her bite her lip. “I think I will get in trouble by my parents if I don’t call you Teacher. Because you are older than me!”
Korea took me in its arms and christened me Teacher, a funny little title that often feels just as unfamiliar to me as the name on my own birth certificate.
My name is — but maybe it doesn’t matter what you call me, for now.
It is nice to meet you.
Andrea Sohn is a 2011 ETA at Seogyeong Middle School in Cheongju.