The Wrong Kind of American

Written by Judith Foo and Zerin (Zarin) Tasnim

This piece features alternating vignettes from two ETAs sharing their respective cultural experiences while in Korea.

We sat in the back end of the coffee shop, my small suitcase jammed next to a fake ficus, and the contents of an even smaller bag threatening to spill out. My stomach growled audibly and I felt sweat seeping through my stiff blazer. After four hours on the bus, I was tired, hot and ready for a cold shower. My head buzzed back to that very morning, when I woke up groggy and dreading the day. A haphazard placement ceremony, tearful goodbyes, boarding a bus to Busan —after a summer of anticipation, this very moment was underwhelming.

As I tried not to give into my exhaustion, a small, plump woman approached the table. Caught off guard, I stood up and quickly bowed, gasping “안녕하세요” [1] under my breath.

The woman nodded and stared at me even after she took a seat. I smiled and shifted around nervously. Finally she spoke, slowly and deliberately.

“What did you study in college?”

“I studied political science and history.” I answered automatically, wringing my hands underneath the table.

“When did you graduate?”

“This past June”

“Do you have any teaching experience?”

“Not any formal experience but I did learn a lot during my orientation,” I said not considering that she already probably knew all these things about me.

“How long have you been learning English?” she asked studying my face. I noticed she hadn’t once smiled at me.

“Excuse me?”

“How long have you been learning English?” She repeated slowly. I gaped at her, unsure of how to answer. Surely she was aware that I am an American…

“I’ve been speaking English ever since I can remember.” I finally answered. She looked at me as if she didn’t believe me and exchanged a look with my coteacher sitting next to me.

“Where are your parents from again?” She asked.

“…Bangladesh.” I replied unsure of what that had to do with me being a teacher.
“Bangladesh,” she repeated.

I nodded as my stomach began to fill with a sense of unease. The hum of warm summer night conversations swirled around the tension that filled our space.

“Well, let’s go find you a place to sleep,” she sighed, as if disappointed. “Your apartment isn’t ready yet, so you’ll have to stay at a motel for a week or so.” She grabbed my wrist and led me out of the coffee shop.

II.

The sun is already setting over the Busan International Film Festival by the time we clamber off the bus in search of a 7 PM screening. The ten of us are huddling together around our crumpled festival map when a man, middle aged and garbed head to toe in bright red BIFF-stamped apparel, approaches us from behind.

Hardly any speaking is required; all it takes are a few gestures towards his official badge and his enormous, professional camera to get the point across. He’s with official festival staff, and he wants to film us. “Just…hello!” He instructs, waving both hands enthusiastically in demonstration. “Say hi! Hello to BIFF!”

Why not? We crowd laughing together, arm in arm and hands on shoulders. He squints into the lens, then frowns, squinting over it. “Korean?” He asks. I realize he’s staring at me, where I’m standing in the front row. The frown is for me.

“Korean? No, she’s American,” my friend responds dismissively, flipping her blonde hair over her shoulder and clinging still more tightly to my arm. We settle back into formation, but the signal doesn’t come. Instead, the man steps out from behind his camera, steps up to us. We all straighten up, unsure of what’s happening.

The man grabs my arm and walks me forcibly out of the frame, deposits me a few feet away on the sidewalk. Then he hops back behind the camera, beaming as if nothing of consequence has happened. “Just hello!” he shouts into my friends’ enraged faces. “Just hi!”

Learning. Donald Bauer Jr. Seoul Museum of Art: Africa Now Exhibit, Seoul.

Learning. Donald Bauer Jr. Seoul Museum of Art: Africa Now Exhibit, Seoul.

III.

I straightened up to answer the student who had just bounded into my classroom.

“Teacher, teacher! My brother, did you see?”

“Erm…yes. What’s his name again?” I asked trying to recall the faces of the 16 new third graders I met just 7 minutes ago.

“Park Woobin” [2]  she said, searching my face for any sign of recognition. I thought hard, trying to remember if any face was similar to this student but came up blank.

“What was he wearing?” I asked

“He wearing orange jacket.”

I could tell she sensed that I didn’t have the vaguest clue. Not wanting to disappoint her, I pretended to have a moment of recognition and prepared myself for a tiny white lie.

“Ah yes! I remember your brother!” My student broke out into a smile. “He is very cute!” I exclaimed. Technically, all the third graders were tiny and adorable.

My student looked surprised and tried to convey her thoughts “Ah..yes. Cute… 하지만 섹갈 이상해요 [3]…not good color.” I blinked trying to process what she said. Color? Was he sick? My student sensed my confusion and pointed to her skin. “His color bad” she elaborated.

Ah.

I knew who her brother was now. Park Woobin, a little boy with cute dimples and a giant orange jacket, was similar in almost every aspect to his older sister but he had one difference.

“Dahyun,” [4] I said with a slight smile, “Your brother and I have the same skin color.”

My student blinked, realizing what I meant.

“But teacher,” my student began, trying to find the right words once again.

“선생님은, 이뻐잖아.” [5] 

IV.

The first time I hear the crinkle of a coat behind me, I pay no heed. The café in downtown Seoul is bustling with strangers, each wearing a bright winter jacket puffier and noisier than the next. But a few moments later, I hear it again, right by my ear, so I turn. There’s a middle-aged Korean man, peering intently over my head at my friend sharing the table. Her light hair is shining in the café lights, and her long white fingers drum a pencil absentmindedly against the page of her Korean textbook. I cough and nudge her foot under the table. “Hey.” I whisper, smirking when she catches my eye. “Visitor.”

Her gaze travels over me to the man, transitioning smoothly from confusion to resigned weariness to politeness, so quickly I would’ve missed it if I hadn’t been expecting the reaction. “Oh, hello!”

I could listen in on this conversation, but why bother? Where are you from? Oh, America?! Why are you in Korea? You’re a teacher? So interesting. You’re very beautiful. It’s nothing I haven’t heard directed towards my friend before.

On the other hand, I look Korean – something I’ve learned to be grateful for during my time here. No stares on the subway, in the market, or at the gym for me; I can commute, shop, and sweat in peaceful obscurity. Now, I’m sitting back in this leather seat and enjoying my book while my friend politely entertains the stranger’s stilted small talk.

Still, even as I enjoy my coffee in peace, something doesn’t sit right. I feel the man’s glances at the identical Korean textbooks spread on the table before us and the sheet of vocabulary on my lap, but he never says a word to me. Instead, for fifteen minutes, he talks right over my head to my friend. The price my friend pays for constant admiration is the constant invasion of her space and time. I wonder if the price I pay for peaceful obscurity is this unsettling feeling that I am not the right kind of foreign.

Field Trip. Alessandra Hodulik. Changdeokgung, Seoul.

Field Trip. Alessandra Hodulik. Changdeokgung, Seoul.

V.

“Seoul Station,” I said as I clicked on my seatbelt. The driver nodded and the cab accelerated into the Seoul traffic.

After a few minutes of silence, the driver cleared his throat. “Where you from?” He asked glancing at me. I looked up from my phone and answered in Korean.

The driver’s face lit up with surprise. “Your Korean is very good!” he exclaimed in Korean. He immediately began asking me a series of questions. Where in America are you from? What are you doing in Korea? Do you like Korean food?

I answered back in my limited Korean, grasping for phrases in the air and using a lot of hand gestures. The driver listened enthusiastically while he maneuvered down the highway.

“Do you like samgyupsal? It’s a very famous food in Korea,” he asked at the next red light.

“No. I can’t eat pork.” I replied. I hoped my simple reply would be enough for him, even though it hadn’t been for others in the past.

“Is it possible… are you Muslim?” He asked with a look of incredulity. I nodded and smiled.

“Inshallah!” He exclaimed loudly, making me jump. “I knew there was a reason I stopped my car for you! It is fate! I am Muslim too!”

I was completely shocked. What were the chances? I never expected to meet a Muslim in Korea where the most dominant faiths are either Buddhism or Christianity. I immediately thought back to a recent school lunch

“I wonder,” my coteacher said as she picked up a piece of meat with her chopsticks, “Why don’t Muslims eat pork?”

The table suddenly became very quiet and the other teachers peeked at me curiously. I swallowed and put my sandwich down, trying to choose my words carefully.

“Well,” I said, staring at the wall ahead, “There are many reasons. But for the most part, the Quran forbids eating pork because of its fat content. Pork is generally considered unhealthy by the Muslim community so we choose not to eat it.”

“Ah,” my coteacher nodded understandingly. “I think this was said in the old days to protect people from diseases from the meat.”

I gave a noncommittal shrug and picked up my sandwich.

“But you should know, the Korean nation prepares pork very cleanly,” my coteacher stated in matter-of-fact manner. “So I think you can eat it,” she said, pushing her tray towards me.

I shook my head and tried to explain, “I’m sorry. It’s not just a matter of cleanliness; I’m not allowed to eat it.”

My coteacher stared at me, moving her tray back.

“I guess your religion must be outdated” she remarked,.

“Wow…really?” I asked, still in disbelief that not only someone accepted and understood my reasons for not eating pork in Korea but was Muslim as well.

“Yes! This is Allah’s work! We were fated to meet! Inshallah!”

I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of familiarity with this man. Who would’ve thought that halfway across the world, despite a different culture and language, I would have such a fundamental part of my life in common with a complete stranger.

Before I could ask him any further questions however, we pulled up to Seoul Station. I quickly glanced at the toll and handed my fare to him.

“Only half. I’ll give you a discount because you are Muslim,” the driver insisted, handing back the rest of the fare.

As I dragged my suitcase up the stairs, I looked back to wave at the man who waved from his car.

“잘가요,” [6] he called, smiling warmly.

VI.

After my last class on Tuesday, the usual gaggle of girls has stayed behind to chat. As I clear my desk and switch off the projector, they mill around me, studying the day’s worksheet and blasting the latest k-pop hit from a cell phone that one girl waves to the beat. At the whiteboard, a few girls are studying up for a Chinese exam later that afternoon. Their markers fill the board with characters that I find I recognize – 昨天我去了我奶奶家。As I walk by, I peer over their shoulders and casually read, “Wo zuotian qule nainai jia.” – Yesterday I went to Grandma’s house – aloud in Mandarin.

The effect is instantaneous: four girls shriek, one slams the whiteboard eraser down with a loud clatter; the k-pop blasting phone is silenced as the girls crowd in around the board.

“Teacher, you can read this?!” One of the girls, Sujin, demands. “How about this?” She points at another sentence, 我已經吃過飯了.“What does this say?”

“This says… ‘Wo yingjing chiguo fanle.’ I already ate. Right?”

“헐! 대박!” [7]  The girls chorus, eyes wide and mouths gaping, and I can’t help but grin.

“But teacher!” Sujin speaks for the rest, raising bewildered hands towards me. “How can you know Chinese? You are American.”

I look around at the girls — they’re all wide-eyed, speechless, completely floored by the Mandarin I’ve just spoken. I, in turn, find myself surprised by their surprise. After months of strangers skeptically guessing that I’m Japanese, Chinese, anything but American, I almost can’t comprehend their whole-hearted, unquestioning belief in my American-ness, to the point that they’re utterly bewildered that I can even speak another language.

“One of the coolest things about America is that we come to live there from many different countries.” I explain, “My family is American, but my grandparents are from Taiwan, so I know Chinese so I can speak to my grandparents.”

“Wow! Chincha jjang!” Sujin raises two thumbs up to go along with her compliment — really great! — and the other girls follow suit. The bell rings then, and they’re off, gathering books and bags. As they rush out the door, I hope they’ve internalized even a bit of the exchange that just happened.

The next week, my hopes are answered. When I enter my classroom to prepare for my Tuesday classes, I find an anonymous message printed in meticulous Chinese on the board. “我愛美國教師,” it says. I love my American teacher.

 

Judith Foo is a 2014-2015 ETA at Jungang Girls High School in Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do.

Zerin (Zarin) Tasnim is a 2014-2015 EETA at Dalbuk Elementary School in Busan.

[1]    ‘ Annyeonghaseyo’,  “Hello”
[2]     Name changed
[3]     ‘Hajiman sekal eesanghaeyo’,  “His hair color is strange”
[4]     Name changed
[5]     ‘Seonsaengnimeun eebbeojanha’,  “But teacher is pretty (so it’s okay)”
[6]     ‘Jalgayo’,  “Safe travels”
[7]     Exclamations of surprise and excitement