Written by Katelyn Hemmeke
After more than six months at my placement, I had never even seen him.
“Your new homestay father will be Mr. Park, the third grade math teacher,” my co-teacher told me at the beginning of my second semester. After my only host sister moved into the school dormitory and my host mother scheduled knee surgery in the spring, my co-teacher decided that I needed a new homestay.
But I had never met Mr. Park, the homeroom teacher for class 3-3 and apparently a longtime employee at my all-girls’ high school. I didn’t teach the third graders, so I had little occasion to go into the third grade teachers’ gyomushil¹ or the third grade classrooms on the second floor. I had never seen him in the hallways or the cafeteria or the main gyomushil on the first floor. A lunch outing arranged by my co-teacher was the first time we met.
Mr. Park was a solemn-faced man who spoke no English and had a slight saturi² lilt to his Korean. He wore pastel-colored polo shirts and dark slacks every day. His wife owned a hagwon³ for elementary schoolers, and his two children — a boy who was about my age and a girl who was a few years younger — were both university students.
“Mr. Park says he will treat you like the first daughter,” my co-teacher said, beaming as he helped me move into the Park family’s brand-new apartment at the end of March.
Because he was a homeroom teacher for third graders — students in their final year of high school and hard at work studying for the suneung⁴ — my new host father rarely came home before 10:00pm. On occasions when he returned home before the rest of us had gone to bed, we spent a bit of time eating fruit together in the living room. Usually, my host father would silently eat a few slices of yellow melon or pear and then, with a nod and a mumbled “잘 자,”⁵ retreat to his room.
“My husband, very little talk,” my host mother said, shaking her head and laughing. “But with you, he try talk very much.”
And he did, usually in random bursts of conversation as we made the short drive to school every morning. He never listened to the radio, never turned on the TV in the dashboard, rarely used the GPS. There was only silence until he would suddenly ask something without prelude: How old do you want to be when you get married? Do you have a driver’s license? Is American university difficult? Our conversations never got very far, usually cut short by my lack of Korean vocabulary. He could always tell when I didn’t understand. “You don’t know what I’m saying, huh,” he would say before lapsing into silence with a little oh-well smirk.
I couldn’t imagine him at the front of a classroom, scrawling endless parades of math equations across the dusty chalkboard and holding the attention of 30 over-stressed, sleep-deprived high school girls with integrals and functions for 50 minutes at a time. But my students seemed to like him. “He is very cute, very kind,” they told me. “He is good teacher. Maybe you are lucky to have 충기쌤⁶ for homestay.”
But all of us were always so busy — my host parents with their long days at work, me with my own teaching obligations and extracurricular activities — that my host family’s beautiful new apartment was more often empty than it was occupied. And after just a couple of months with the Park family, I moved into my own apartment for my second grant year. After I moved out, we were rarely able to meet — my host mother was busy moving her hagwon to a new building, and my host father worked long hours at school, preparing the third graders for the suneung 4that fall.
The week before the suneung, the class captain of my host father’s homeroom, Ju Yeon, posted a screenshot from her phone on Facebook. While the students were at school studying late at night, Ju Yeon texted my host father: “배고파요 쌤” (“We’re hungry, Teacher”). My host father asked how many students were studying in the classroom. Ten minutes later, he texted Ju Yeon back and told her to meet him at the school entrance, where he brought food and drinks for all of the students in his homeroom. I smiled at Ju Yeon’s picture of her classmates, wrapped in bright fleece blankets and happily displaying their feast, beaming despite the bags under their eyes.
Several days later, the third grade hallway was silent and empty. After finishing the suneung, the third graders had no reason to attend school anymore. They no longer scurried across the second floor, brushing their teeth or fluffing their bangs or chasing after the teachers with squeals of “쌤!” and piles of textbooks in their arms. Most of them were free to savor full nights of sleep and movie outings with friends and part-time jobs, to look forward to attending university in a few months’ time. A handful of them whose scores “weren’t good enough” faced 365 more days of endless studying before they could take a second shot at the grueling nine-hour exam.
Subdued by the sudden absence of a third of my school’s student body, I practically tiptoed up the stairs to the third grade hallway in search of my host father. I had forgotten to return my apartment gym key after I moved out, and my host sister needed it to replace hers. “Just give key to my father,” she texted me.
I peered into the third-grade gyomushil. Most of the teachers were there, organizing files and making records of where their students had been admitted to university, but my host father’s desk was unoccupied. I turned and headed down the dim hallway to see if he was in his classroom.
Before I reached class 3-3, I heard the hollow ppak – ppak – ppak of a ping-pong ball bouncing on tile. Ppak – ppak – ppak. I frowned. My host father was a champion ping-pong player — his trophies adorned several cabinets and shelves in the apartment — but why would he be playing at school?
Peeking through the narrow window in the door, the first things I saw were the desks. The desks and chairs were still arranged in testing rows, wide spaces gaping between each empty seat. They had been scrubbed clean of the students’ scribbles declaring their chicken cravings and test loathings and undying love for K-pop stars. Many of the chairs were strewn askew from the desks, probably pushed there by students eager to rush out of the school and leave the suneung behind them.
And then I saw my host father. He was standing next to the podium at the front of the room, staring at the back wall with his face set in its usual solemn expression. He tossed a white ping-pong ball into the air and, flicking his wrist, hit it with a red paddle; the ball flew past the desks and hit the wall — ppak — bounced once on the floor — ppak — and came back to the front of the room, where my host father snatched the ball as it bounced back and sent it flying — ppak — again, again, again.
“Everything is finished and I can not realize the reality,” one of my students texted me right after completing the suneung. I had tried to imagine the reality of spending my entire K-12 education with the suneung — an exam that literally shuts down the country for a day — looming at the end of the tunnel. I had tried to imagine what it must feel like to have such high stakes riding on one day, one test, and what it must feel like to have that test finally behind you, for better or for worse.
But in that moment, as I saw my host father in his empty classroom, I tried to fathom a different reality: the reality of more than twenty years of pouring long hours into a room full of young minds, of helping students through one of the most grueling education systems in the world, of seeing them off into the next stage of their lives — and the reality of an empty classroom after everything was finished, year after year, with nothing but vacant desks and the ppak – ppak – ppak of a ping-pong ball striking the wall again, again, again.
Katelyn Hemmeke was a 2012-2014 ETA at Wonkwang Girl’s High School in Iksan, Jeollabuk-do. She is now a master’s candidate studying ethnic literature at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
1. Teachers’ office
2. Regional dialect
3. Private academy
4. The Korean university entrance exam
5. ‘Jal ja,’ “Sleep well.”
6. Jung Gi Ssaem; Mr. Park’s full name is Jung Gi Park, and “ssaem” means “teacher.”