Sunday, September 17, 2017

Koreopsis: Past and present

The roads in Gangwon Province all wend through mountains; there’s no such thing as a straight path. “I’ve never lived around mountains before,” I told the English teacher (I will call her "Mrs. Oh," not actually her name) who came to help pick me up from our teacher-training program, as we hurtled north—past Chuncheon, the provincial capital, its apartment complexes and office towers striving in vain against the enormous hills all around. In another half-hour, we reached my town for the year: Hwacheon, a small city of about thirty thousand nestled at the juncture of two rivers, ringed by woods and worn old mountain peaks. Hwacheon’s name comes from Chinese words for “magnificent river,” 華川; the Bukhan River flows through it in its course toward Seoul, where it becomes the Han after merging with the Namhan. It’s the seat of a rural county filled with farms, proud of its annual ice-fishing festival, only ten miles or so from the Demilitarized Zone.

Mrs. Oh explained to me later that since Korean public schoolteachers are rotated between schools every five years, most of the faculty at the Hwacheon schools actually live in Chuncheon to the south and commute north. Chuncheon is a much larger city with more to do, and if you settle there, you stand a better chance of being able to stay in one spot when reassigned, without having to move to another part of the province. “When I started teaching in this area around the time you were born in 1990,” she told me on another occasion, “almost none of the teachers had cars. A lot of the households in the province still used coal-burning furnaces. It was a totally different country then.” Even then, she remembered, in outlying areas families might end their girls’ educations after middle school so that they could do factory work to support the family—especially if they had sons, who were more likely to go to high school.

My classroom at Hwacheon Middle School.
As a visitor now, it is sometimes hard to see just how shallowly such memories of the Korean past lie underneath its modern prosperity, and just how recent that past was. I walk into my middle school classroom every day, fantastically well-equipped with computers, a large screen, white boards, and an entire library of English books; I deliver most of my lessons using Google Slides, able to scribble magically on a screen that I can wipe instantly like a grammatical John Madden. My students, all born after the turn of the century, don’t know any Korea other than this, except as a part of history. Their parents, however, have seen Korean GDP per capita (adjusted for inflation) swell nearly tenfold over their lifetimes, from $2,800 in 1986 to $27,500 in 2016. Their grandparents saw brutal military dictatorships fall, the reduction of the country to rubble during the Korean War, and sometimes even remember the Japanese colonial occupation. Some parts of the country jumped from traditional agriculture with ox-drawn plows to heavy industry to a post-industrial service economy in a single lifetime.

As soon as I arrived, the mom of the family I’m staying with, whom I will call Mrs. S, took me to see her father- and mother-in-law, who live to the north of town, further our among the fields and farms. (The dad, Mr. B, grew up in Hwacheon and has lived here his entire life.) She explained that when you have important news in your family, you’re supposed to share it with the oldest people in the family right away. Their house felt very traditional: an immaculate middle room with a low table in the center, with small screened bedrooms and a kitchen to the side. I was nervous, linguistically and culturally; Korean has an entire range of vocabulary and set of verb forms, called jondaetmal or nopimmal, that you use only when speaking to or of superiors and elders. They offered me Korean corn on the cob for lunch—different from American corn, chewier and waxier. (Korean food is generally very interested in chewiness as a texture: chewy rice cakes, chewy noodles, taffy, octopus, etc.) I lacked the gumption to ask anything interesting, worried that if I spoke first, or too much, it might be seen as impolite. I think they thought I was nervous, which was right. They just smiled and kept complimenting my Korean gently.

At Chuncheon's dakgalbi festival. Dakgalbi, a stir-fry of chicken, cabbage,
rice cakes, and seasonings, is one of two local specialties.
In general, I have found Korean culture to be much less preoccupied with hierarchy and politeness than some people make it out to be. Maybe I’m just oblivious, but I keep getting into situations where I try to be polite and people keep telling me I’m trying too hard. Some people told me you must always bow at 45º or 90º; my colleagues told me this is ridiculous and I should pass with a polite nod of the head. I used very formal verbs until my colleague Mrs. O told me no one actually speaks like that but soldiers. The Korean adults I know are all a lot less concerned with age differences and respect than I’d been led to believe by Korean classes, older Korean-Americans, and Americans who had spent time in Korea in days gone by. I wonder whether etiquette in general has become more relaxed in the past decade or two. (It wasn’t that long ago that, under the military dictatorship, miniskirts and long hair were illegal.) Or maybe I just get a pass because they know I grew up overseas.

I’d prepared myself for a culture of giving bows, taking objects with two hands, and speaking deferentially to superiors; what I hadn’t prepared for is receiving those gestures as my due from younger people, such as all my students, without reciprocating. In the early weeks, other teachers had to keep discreetly telling me not to do these things with the students: you don’t bow to students in the halls, you give them things with one hand, you speak to them only with informal verbs and titles. But as a non-native speaker, it’s hard to switch these things on and off. Either I catch myself speaking too formally with students, or, after successfully making the switch during class time, I accidentally tell an older teacher in the lowest verb form, “Joshimhae!” when I see she’s about to spill her coffee.

Makguksu, cold noodles served with julienned cucumbers, chili paste, and pear,
is another regional specialty associated with Chuncheon and Gangwon Province.
At my host family’s apartment, everyone speaks casually with each other. (In days gone by, maybe children spoke up to their parents, but generally, I think that doesn’t happen anymore.) I’m still unsure, as a long-term guest who is in theory a “family member,” whether that includes me or not. I speak banmal (the casual form) with the kids, but still more politely with their mom and dad. It’s somewhat awkward, grammatically speaking, even to talk to them directly: Korean avoids using second-person pronouns, which are either informal or slightly rude, but we never really settled on what I should call them. They laughed when I called them, literally, “host mom” and “host dad,” but declined to come up with substitutes. (Mr. B suggested “uncle” and “aunt,” but Mrs. S laughed that she didn’t want to be called “Aunt.”) So for the moment, I leave the subject of my sentences somewhat vague when addressing them.

They have three children: a 16-year-old daughter, an eighth-grade girl, and a fourth-grade boy, all sweet and friendly. Their parents were hoping that I could speak mainly English around their kids (one of the upsides, in theory, of agreeing to let a random American English teacher live with you for the year), but this proves difficult, since they also want to understand what I’m saying at mealtimes; so, in practice, we mainly interact in Korean. I have good days and bad days. On good days, I feel like I’ve learned so much since arriving in July, my vocabulary fits the topics at hand, and I don’t have a hard time recognizing what is being said to me. On bad days, my grammar falls to pieces and I only hear a torrent of syllables passing me by. It’s never a totally “immersive” environment because I teach in English and, inevitably, have to take care of my email and so forth in English. The real difficulty, though, lies not just in using the Korean that I have, but trying to improve on it: it would be easy to make do with what I know, but maintaining a dedication to bettering my grammar and vocabulary will be essential to any greater command of the language.

I'm constantly at pains to explain to people that Korea's interest in English isn't
a fixation on America, or even Anglophone countries: it's because Koreans see
English as the most convenient medium of global exchange and communication.
Lucky, then, that I live with a nine-year-old boy fond of reasonably simple sentences and video games. From him, I have learned the words for “zombie” (jombi), “sword” (kal, same as the word for "knife"), and “n00b” (jjoreb). It’s also a good thing that I’m teaching middle school, at least linguistically. Even if the students are at their most challenging in behavioral terms, the size of the eighth- and ninth-graders’ English vocabularies are somewhere close to the size of my Korean vocabulary, so I’m constantly picking up new words by basically learning their lessons in reverse. Korean students, however, generally learn these words principally for reading recognition, not speaking recall: the college entrance exam (suneung) is heavy on advanced reading skills and almost nothing else, which means that students can read complex technical essays and magazine articles, but sometimes are shy to speak even brief sentences. It actually reminds me very much of the way that I was educated in Latin and ancient Greek: the true test is the ability to hack our way through thickets of Thucydides and Tacitus, but sometimes even very talented readers struggle in prose composition (and speaking graceful Latin is a rare skill that takes years of work). 

That means my classes, which focus on speaking and listening, are difficult for the reason that students are sophisticated enough readers and thinkers to want interesting material, yet they need to build far more basic speaking skills before they can talk about those things. Sometimes I feel like a slightly deranged Henry Higgins, saying everything at half-speed twice with the hyperbolic body language of a mime show. More than elementary school students, middle-schoolers are also at an age where they are capable of feeling they are Too Cool To Do That, which makes life hard when you are trying to rehearse them through painfully obvious textbook dialogues about watering the plants.

Pyeongchang, another city in Gangwon Province, will host the 2018 Winter
Olympics in February, and the entire province is really excited. These mascots
are absolutely everywhere.
More now than when I have taught in the past, I feel a sense of distance between the lives of my students and my own imagination, which is due not just to age, but also to language and culture. Behaviorally, Korean middle schoolers are a lot like American ones, but I keep looking for ways to get a window into their lives: how they spend their free time, what they care about, whether and why they care about English at all. The results are interesting, and not just the ones about pop culture. A lot more students do traditional arts than I would have realized, most because they really like them: calligraphy or samul nori drumming or the gayageum or something else. Even in middle school, students spend a lot of time studying, which is fascinating in our school because they have very little homework: they just study as an extracurricular in private lessons, and it does seem to help. So far, many students go to church (Christian), but no one goes to temple (Buddhist); and a lot of students go to church for a huge chunk of Sunday. (I think it’s common to serve lunch at church, etc.) Every once in a while, you also catch a student who does something unusual: the shy, small girl who does taekweondo four days a week, or a student who helps out at her parents’ shop on the weekends. I found out this weekend that my older host sister reads classical sijo poetry competitively.

I hack through Korean poetry slowly, one word at a time. I don’t really have the skill to read it gracefully yet, but it has always been this way learning languages for me: wanting to run before I can walk. I have to remind myself how long it took me to be able to read Césaire or Ovid or Sappho meaningfully. It’s strange reading poetry in a language you don’t have an ear for quite yet, and whose prosody you don’t understand. At some point, I want to pilfer a Korean literature textbook from the language teacher and see if I can find some answers in there. (Unless attempting to differentiate it from other languages, people call Korean the gugeo or uri mal: “the national language” or just “our language”—something not possible, for perfectly good reasons, in polyglot countries like Britain or America.) This is a crib of a poem I read recently—maybe not a very good one, but a start:

Yun Dongju 
to be ashamed of nothing till the day I die:
even the teeth on the leaves in the wind
make me distressed—
with a soul that sings the stars,
you must love every thing as it dies—
and I will have to walk
the road that has been given to me 
(this very night the stars, they flicker on the wind)


  1. I relate so much to the grammar struggle and awkwardness of switching between forms and of receiving politeness from my students!! I keep accidentally bowing back to them in the halls! I was also unsure what to call my host parents, but started playing it safe and simply calling them [oldest sibling's name] 어머니/아버지 and they seemed to accept this without batting an eye. (I started after they instructed me to call the grandparents [oldest sibling] 할머니/할아버지)

    1. That name strategy is a great idea, actually—thank you!