Sunday, August 31, 2008


yesterday i was driven into seoul, with the other native english teachers, by district, to be picked up by one of our korean co-teachers. she (miss baek, or baek-seon-sang-nim*) was very kind. shy. nervous to meet me. in fact how nervous she was made it easier for me.

[in my extremely limited exposure, korean's are very nervous about making a mistake and looking foolish. this, clearly, isn't just a korean characteristic, but given that english is not their native language, given that it is mine, and i am to share it with students, it seems all the more reasonable that they would be doubly cautious around 'the english expert'.]

first we went to the school,
'are you married?'
figured it was best to leave it there.
'you are outgoing person?' (inflection helped)
'yes i am'
'good for teacher'

the schools (two, mine and when i went to see a 'demo' lesson) seem to share some common characteristics. they don't feel as coldly institutional, even tho they are. they money isn't put into the walls and floors so much. it isn't decrepit, or even bad, but paint is uneven, evidence of posters past, etc abounds. for all that, every classroom has some serious technology (except for air conditioning more often than not). a giant screen, some classrooms have smart boards (giant screens you can write on with your finger), but not mine. in fact, i don't have a classroom. i roam to my classes. but this post is getting bogged down in details that would be best saved for another post. i need to learn to keep things straight-forward and simple.

from class we went to my apartment. she warned me that it was very tiny, and while not big, i have certainly seen smaller efficiencies. essentially, it is what some of my friends live in or have lived in in manhattan. it had more things in it than i suspected. again, apartment details shall be saved for another time.

'i think you change into different clothes, and we go out.'

she stepped out into the hallway, i was able to get out of my shirt, tie, etc, and back into wandering clothes. we talked about how long it would most likely take me to walk to work (she estimates 30 minutes, i plan on testing this out later today).
'you have umbrella? it should rain'
'no i didn't pack one'
'oh ohhhh'
'do you like korean food?'
'do you like to eat korean or western food?'
'either one is fine with me, thank you'
she asked someone on the street something, then she said, 'do you know hyundai?'
'we should go to their department store, it is about a half of an hour away'

i followed her down the street, weaving our way through people--it is okay, if there is very little room, to make some body-contact in order to scoot by. there were two old(er) men in front of us for a while, tho, that didn't offer a way through. finally we squeezed by.

the subway was amusing, it was like going out with my mom. she is trying to figure out how to get a ticket, but since there wasn't anyone in the booth, had to take on the machine.

she only had a 10000 on her, and the machine that gives individual tickets seems to only take 1000 bills. she is talking to two school girls (they have class for half-days twice a month on saturdays), and one of them agrees to get her change from the newspaper stand just past the turn-style. i believe the girl made a joke about not returning with her money as she said something mischievous and then the three of them laughed. she came back with her change, reaching over the turn-style. her friend then joined her and she loudly said, 'bye'
'bye, thank you'
the two girls then laughed and ran away.

baek-song-sang-nim then was trying to figure out what the order of operations was to get the tickets.
'i think you put the money in first'
'oh...oh, you are right! you have been to seoul before!'
we get down to the platform, and stand next to the two school girls, who are looking at my like an exhibit. while on the subway, she stands literally in front of this younger guy, younger than me i believe, who is texting and is looking right at him. he should, be all rights, give up his seat, but he pretends to ignore her. i lightly giggle.
'why you laugh?'
'um, just taking it all in i guess'

the hyundai department store has the most incredible food court i have ever seen. it is all fast food, but it is all made to order, so you wait a few minutes, but for a freshly made, simple, dish. we get to where she thought was best (she knows that i am a 'vegetarian' but will eat fish.)
'oh, menu is all koren, no english. they have tuna bi bim bop?'
'that's sounds great, kum-sa-ham-ni-da'
finally, i remembered to say 'thank you' in korean. i keep wanting to say it, but it doesn't work out as my head goes straight to english.

we sit and we wait. people look at us and me. literally, like two separate operations. there are electronic boards throughout that put the ticket number up so you know when your order is ready. i see our number (the ticket is between us on the table).
'i think that is our number?'
'i have not seen it up on board yet' but she turns and looks at the board i am looking at 'oh, my board must be broken, you have been here before!' she smiles.

the food was good, i learned how to eat the pickled turnips (which i enjoy, thin slices of daikon radish i believe, but she said turnip with some struggle and trepidation, and, well...). she also added, 'they are japanese'. i wasn't gonna touch that.

we talk about my family, how long she has been teaching, my goals, and what how i should address her in front of the class. (misses baek for those who are curious). i also learn that nam june paik, in korean, is actually baek. like her. 'he must be relative' we laugh.

on the way from the food court she asks what else i need. i'm not sure what it is i can ask for. i need, for example, a watch too, but how far do i take this welcome gift? i politely mentioned the apartment had more in it than i was suspecting, so i am all set for the moment.

we go to the umbrella section of the store (it seems comparable in size to a sack's 5th avenue, or any other gigantic nyc department store). we are looking at umbrellas, she kind of displays a few to me.
'you like this one, this one, this one?'
one of the umbrellas is in a polka-dot zip up container, and i assume it expands up when you open it. i ask her if that is the case.
'yes, three levels'
so i opt for the level three umbrella. a sales associate takes it out of my hands, and then the transaction occurs. she hands me the umbrella.
'this is my gift to welc--'
the sales associate comes by and hands her her receipt.
'this is my gift to welcome you to korea'
she then takes the umbrella out of my hands. and puts it in her purse.
'i carry it'

on the escalator down i tell her how hard it is for me to remember to go into korean to thank anyone, and then i tell her that this is great, because i can only imagine how my students must feel. (i have been thinking about how i learned foreign language quite a bit. what problems i had, why i didn't do better at it.)

when we are heading back to the subway, she makes the wrong turn.
'um, i think we want to head towards gimpo/banghwa'
'ha ha, you are right. you have been here before! how do you know?'
'i'm trying to be very alert, so i don't get lost'
'good job'

we walk back to my apartment, i ask her to write my address in korean, just in case i need to take a taxi at some point. she agrees this is a good idea. she begins to leave.
'um, sorry, but can i have my umbrella? i plan on walking around, and it may rain'

as i type this, i'm not sure if i made a mistake in asking for it. did she forget, or was it part of something bigger? i know most gifts are wrapped. oh well. at dinner i told her i know some customs, but i am certain to make some mistakes and to please be patient. after all, she was the one who said i will need it for my walk to school on monday as it will rain.

* i, technically, am thurston-seon-sang-nim (thurston teacher)


rfb said...

now i wonder how common the '-aek' construction is; your teacher is Baek, and my dear friend from Barnard is Paek. do some recon and get back to me...any other last names that end that way?

kevin.thurston said...

baek, paek, and park are essentially one from what i have been told. it is like 'now that we are westernizing this, what do you want to do?'

think ellis island, and the leveling of names.