Written by Gabrielle Nygaard
It’s already getting hot in Korea. Late April and it was pushing 80 degrees last week. Students beg me to turn on the fans, chanting “I love 선풍기”¹ (“fan” is just one of those vocabulary words they can’t seem to lock down, as “달리다”² is for me in Korean), and already I work up a sweat from the amount of flailing and pacing just one of my lessons involves.
In the morning I throw my classroom windows wide open as soon as I arrive. Like clockwork, a certain co-teacher waits until I’m busy teaching and then slides them shut one by one while I watch helplessly from my place at the front of the room. We all suffer through the next 45 minutes of stuffy air and the body odor pubescent boys are so great at producing, then I open the windows again when my co-teacher leaves between periods. She of course repeats the process as soon as I start my next lesson, and we continue this dance for the next seven hours.
South Korea’s culture of indirectness isn’t a problem for me, being fluent in passive aggression. Once it gets truly hot, my next move should probably be to lodge a broomstick in the windowsill to prevent it from being closed. Or maybe I could even borrow the piece of metal siding my cutesy, 애교³ co-teacher is fond of brandishing at the students; it looks like the perfect size for the job. Talk about two birds with one stone. My classroom could be a place of air circulation and non-violence.
I can dream, anyway.
A student cried in my class for the first time. Some girls called me over and pointed at a boy, indicating that it was his doing. I looked back and forth between them trying to figure out what to do, but blanking except for the urge to hug the girl. Thankfully, in one of his rare but dramatic moments of assistance, my co-teacher rose from his seat and stepped in, leading the two away to sort it out in a language they could all understand.
Ultimately, I am glad to have co-teachers. They don’t always help me; sometimes they even complicate things, but if nothing else they can add an element of surprise. Last week I used a “talking ball” for an activity where only the person holding the ball could answer the question before passing it on. Unfortunately my co-teacher woke up from his nap in the back of the room just as a boy nearby caught the ball, and not knowing what was going on, angrily snatched it away from the student and hurled it into the garbage can before we could stop him. As he smirked at me triumphantly as if to say “you’re welcome,” I had to attempt to explain the situation and fish the ball out of the trash with everyone looking on in stunned silence. His smile broke as he realized that this time he was not the benevolent hero, swooping in to dry the tears and save the day, but the bad guy himself. Perhaps my “no sleeping” rule should apply to co-teachers as well.
Since then, my co-teacher hasn’t been napping in my class. But I do catch him sitting in the back laughing gleefully at something on his computer during my lessons. It’s a little rude. If he knows where the good cat videos are at, he could at least share them.
“우리 갸비,” I overhear my host mother explain to a curious customer in her restaurant where I sit eating dinner, “our Gabi is a teacher at the middle school.” It’s amazing how anchoring two small syllables can be.
I came to this country with just a slippery grasp of the alphabet and a handful of phrases. Carving out your place in a new community is challenging enough with the ability to understand and be understood. But as days, and then months, unfolded, I chipped away at the language barrier and in its place attempted to lay the foundations of a home. Though I can now hold a basic conversation in Korean, the endeavor is ongoing, both wielding the language and forging a life here. At the outset, I often found myself saying “here” when I meant America. This was not only 5000 miles off the mark, but a panging reminder of my failure to acclimate to my surroundings. But eventually, I noticed I called the place I live with my host family “home” without it feeling unnatural or untrue.
Still, this feeling of belonging is not unshakeable. Some days, the only thing I want is to be lying in my bed, my real bed, or to smell the Oregon rain. Others, I feel so comfortable and right where I am that I can’t begin to fathom living elsewhere. In even the smallest of successes; mailing a package, filling a prescription without help—or English; I can almost hear the scrape of cement as another brick is laid, my place secured a little more firmly. Some days bring backslides. It shakes your confidence and feels like a painfully obvious metaphor to sit in the rain, locked out of “your” house. But cracks can be repaired, the little moments can act as plaster. Simply being called “uri”—ours—imparts a sense of belonging that redeems almost any slight.
It’s a work in progress.
We were having a beer after a Saturday night Easter church service when my host mother enlisted her son to translate something for her. Through him, she told me a worker at the grocery store down the street asked if I was her daughter-in-law. “What?!” I burst out laughing. My host brother, Hungyo, is 15, but I’m used to being mistaken for younger than my 22 years. Right before I left for Korea, when I was on a walk with my little brother Kadon, a boy he rides the bus with saw us and yelled “Hey! HEY! HEY! HI!” until he was acknowledged, the way middle school boys do. My brother reported back that the next day at school he was asked if the girl he was walking with was his girlfriend. So what struck me as weird this time was that someone thought that Hungyo and I actually looked old enough to be married. I certainly don’t feel old enough for it. Though I guess I am, if the amount of last name changes on my Facebook feed or the deluge of baby pictures I suddenly have to scroll through on Instagram are any indication.
The next day when my host brother returned to his dorm, I found a wrapper from some cheese he had apparently eaten and left in the bathroom. I’m pretty sure this exact thing has happened to me before in Oregon. It appears that teenage boys round the world will eat anything, anywhere, any time, not to mention hog the bathroom for hours doing mysterious things when all you want to do is get in there to brush your teeth. Sometimes Hungyo reminds me so much of Kadon that it’s eerie, like maybe I didn’t really leave home at all but was just transplanted into an alternate universe where socks with sandals are an acceptable fashion choice and sweet potato is both a cake flavor and a pizza topping.
A student tried to hold my hand while I was walking down the long school driveway. Had it been a girl, it wouldn’t have been a problem. Skinship⁴ is a fascinating part of Korean culture. But it was a 9th grade boy, something that would be easily misconstrued in the U.S., so I busied my hands with my phone to avoid wrestling with the question of appropriateness. I’m a decade older than my youngest students, but I feel like their peer. When my host mother talks about them, she doesn’t refer to them as my students (학생들) but my friends (친구들). And they themselves have told me that that’s what they are, which is such a relief. I’m glad to know the feeling is mutual. I see myself in my students all the time and their wisecracks have me laughing so hard it hurts. The other day when we were doing a “My Future Pet” worksheet, I pointed at the turtle a student was drawing and asked “what is it?”, trying to elicit the English word for the animal. But she was much too clever for my easy question. Without hesitation, she quipped with what is probably the exact line I would have used: “My boyfriend!”
When I came to Korea, I didn’t think my middle school placement would mesh. My first reaction was “Why me?” I’m not loud or exuberant, I thought. I’m never going to keep up with these pre-teens. But I was wrong. Maybe the person behind the curtain who ignored my request to teach high school saw something in me that I didn’t, or maybe it was pure chance, but my students and I just get along. We listen to the same boy bands. If I had more free time, I’d spend it playing League of Legends. I can make an aside that Pokémon is superior to Digimon in class without anyone missing a beat. My girls are on a constant mission to steal my Hello Kitty silly band, and I would trade them backpacks in a heartbeat.
In Korea, friends can hold hands and teachers can show their love for their students. So I make hearts with my arms and tell them I love them, even if the words get a little caught in my American throat.
Gabrielle Nygaard is a 2013-2015 ETA currently at Gwangju Girl’s High School. She previously taught at Jeonggwang Middle School in Gwangju.
1. Seonpunggi, electric fan
2. Tallida, to run
3. Aegyo, acting cute; affected sweetness
4. Expressions of friendship through platonic touch and physical intimacy