By Nathan Sieminski, a second-year ETA in Yeosu

Anna Yamamuro, “Korean Flags,” Cheonan

I can speak. But not right now. I leave the cafeteria as I entered it: mute.

Every day at 12:20, I head into the constant uncertainty of school lunch. The one month of Korean language training, which at first impressed my Korean colleagues, has long ago been exhausted. Though I am learning new words every day, there are only so many times a year that you can say “꽃샘추위” (got•saem•chu•wi, when the cold envies the flowers: a phrase used on seemingly random cold days of early spring) and expect it to be situationally relevant or for anyone to muster a feigned “whaaaaa” for the third time.

The initial excitement of having a foreigner has long ago ceased, as have the questions about whether I like the food or how old I am. Now anything beyond a friendly “안녕하세요” (an•nyeong•ha•se•yo, hello) or a cursory “맛있게 드세요” (mas•it•ge deu•se•yo, eat deliciously), and it is a landmark meal. I say my ritualistic pleasantries as do they, and we drift off into separate worlds. And they really are separate worlds. Mine, inhabited by English and all that entails—so close and yet so far away. Theirs, inhabited by the Korean around them—bouncing off the walls and perceptibly into their ears.

I often question whether or not my experience counts as being authentic. I have lived in Korea for almost a year now. I have seen the Korea that is not in brochures. I have seen normal people living normal lives. Though my friends and family might not believe it, removed as they are from the humanity that makes cultural differences secondary, my life here is normal too. Sometimes I almost forget I live abroad.

However, every lunch I remember. Every lunch I remember how inauthentic my experience can be at times. My language insufficiency gets paraded for all to see, and the divide never feels larger than at the cafeteria table. At least that is how it feels sometimes. As we all settle into normalcy, the easiest thing to do most days is to eat in silence. I daydream or attempt a farcical nod as I follow the conversation that has left me behind the moment it began. I am merely a passive passenger along the train of conversation, a hitchhiker sharing the space but not the destination.

Zoya Hsaio, “Stay Colorful,” Kowloon
I have two reactions to this silence. The first is crippling self-consciousness. I would second-guess every nod or laugh, wondering if it was directed at me or some faux pas I committed. It’s amazing how self-consciousness can be so selfish. Instead of looking outward for engagement’s sake, it makes you peer from behind curtain slits—you look outwards only to look in. The second is complete mental drift. I let my mind wander wherever it wills, a thirty-minute reverse-meditation. It’s hard to tell what my co-teachers make of this. Of course most have patience with me. They understand that language learning is difficult, but I wonder at times if my muted presence is an affront, an unwillingness to learn and adapt. And so my silence speaks.

These moments connect me to my students’ experience better than anything else could. Sometimes, when I can feel their confidence waning, heads bowed beneath the awkwardness of wordlessness, I show them a clip from a Korean movie called I Can Speak. It follows an elderly Korean woman, Na Ok Bun, who decides to learn English at the tender age of 80. Though she has immense difficulties, over the course of the movie her confidence and ability grows tremendously. I use this movie to inspire my students, but I have never thought of it as an inspiration for myself.

Last month I walked into the cafeteria with my host mother who doubles as one of my co-teachers. We arrived early and had a few minutes alone before other teachers arrived at our table. We discussed our class and joked about the utter messiness of my room, but as other teachers approached our table and exchanged pleasantries, she sensed a change in my demeanor. The Nathan she knew, the one that could joke and laugh, was retreating, ceding the table to the other teachers. And so she leaned in. “Nathan, today you need to talk at lunch. Ask her what subject she teaches.”

I knew the word for “what” (mu•seun, 무슨) and “teach” (ga•reu•chi•da, 가르치다), but I had to ask for “subject” and the connective grammar. With her help I pieced the question together with several rounds of improving pronunciation, which, of course, meant that everyone at the table knew what I was going to ask long before I actually did it.

Eunice Yu, “Two Plants,” Changwon

“무슨 과목 가르치세요?” I asked sheepishly. I could notice her answer on her lips long before I began speaking.

“나는 음악을 가르쳐요,” she responded slowly and clearly. Ah, a music teacher!

And so my lunches got a little less quiet. The rest of the week, I asked this question, solidifying it in my memory. The next week I got a new question: what is your favorite food? (가장 좋아하는 음식이 뭐예요?). And this continued. Of course conversations trailed off, but with each new dead end, a new conversational neighborhood was explored. Some of the younger women teachers even began sitting with me every Thursday for an informal language exchange.

My favorite moment from I Can Speak is a scene where Na Ok Bun heads to a bar in Itaewon, a predominantly English-speaking district in Seoul. Fueled by a little bit of liquid confidence and a lot of reassurance from her English tutor, she is tasked with striking up a conversation with English-speakers that lasts longer than one minute. Though the seconds creep at first, and the minute bell is drowned out with Ok Bun’s sighs of relief, each conversation becomes easier. Finally, a distractedly happy Ok Bun looks up at the clock only to see that she has been talking to the same person for 20 minutes.

My host mother quietly translated most of the dialogue in the movie theater, an irony not lost on me, but perhaps the power of this elderly Korean woman’s effort was. I used her work as an inspiration for my students, but never did I think to use it for myself—relying on my silence over words. Slowly, I am learning that my lunches do not have to be silent. I can speak, too.  

“선생님, 아이 캔 스피크 봤어요?”

“Have you seen I Can Speak?”