During the hunt for adequate Halloween costuming, we stopped for dinner in Dong Incheon, a small area near the port and China Town. We sat down and I managed to order, completely in Korean, though we refused the offer for makgeolli, which the proprietress did not take kindly. We tore through the samgyeopsal (fried pork belly), prepared on the tin-foil shellacked centre grill, and desired more food. I managed to ask another table what was the delicious thing they were enjoying, attempted to order it, understood that the other table had had the last of it, and then ordered something else. Upon her questioning, I managed to communicate, in Korean, that two of us were from Canada, one from the U.S. When we eventually came to pay the bill, I understood the number she told me fluently and quickly. It was thus that I took an unnatural degree of chagrin when she asked, “Money changee? You need changee Canada dollar for won?” The woman assumed we were tourists! Such an affront. I bristled with pompousness and declared us to be English teachers before, I imagine, leaving in an aloof huff. Then I began to wonder: do the Korean language skills of your average tourist surpass my own? Like many times when my ego gets ruffled, I soon deflated sheepishly.
-I decided I would allow my hair to grow longer, because I assumed that having a mop of curly hair would bring hilarity. I was correct in this assumption. “Teacher… hair… is… curly!” the students call, gesticulating at my head and their own wildly, miming giant, swirly locks. An ex-English teacher stared at my scalp for a number of minutes before declaring that I resemble Tom Hanks. And, most awesomely, a co-teacher reported to me that “Other teachers want to know. Your hair… did you get it permed, or is it natural?”
-For whatever reason, my school is installing a dental clinic (with a really nice lacquered wood finish all down the adjacent hallway, too). One day while I was eating lunch, a cafeteria worker frantically approached another coteacher and me and began spattering us with Korean of the utmost urgency. “The principal needs to see us!” my co-teacher declared, looking concerned. We abandoned our food, cut through the kitchen (something you never do), and ran to meet him. The principal, with grave concern across his face, intoned, “Check spelling.” They wanted me to check the spelling and construction of the English language sign underneath the Korean outside of the office. I was touched that they cared, as other schools I have seen are somewhat more lax, knowing that the only English speaker to ever see any lingering Konglish signage will probably be an English teacher, and will thus probably be too polite to say anything about it.
-I thought that after two months, my novelty would have worn off on the students. Everyone coming to teach ESL in Korea is told that, upon arrival, the student body will treat you like a celebrity. Your face, your height, your hair, your speech, your everything is shocking and new to them. Most of the kids, so awed by my honkyness, bolted up to me, tossed off whatever English they knew, and then galloped from whence they came, giggling all the while, giddy that they had achieved an English interaction with such a weirdo.
When a Korean student passes by a Korean teacher, respect generally demands that they give some sort of acknowledgement, usually a bow. When your school is full of both Korean students and Korean teachers, the sheer frequency of this means that most kids don’t bother, only bowing when interacting with a teacher personally or if they’ve had manners drilled into them. Some kids bow to me, but typically, students greet me in English, every minute of the day. When I walk the halls, students call from inside their classrooms, the opposite end of the floor, even staircases as they pass. My co-teachers have noticed, and I wonder, at times, if they take umbrage: when I walk into the lunchroom, it is to a fleet of turned heads, and dozens of children eagerly waving at me and saying hello. All of us teachers get a degree of respect, but I get utterly unearned stardom.
-The census takers in Korea mean business. My friends and I saw signs posted in our buildings about the apparent coming census and ignored them, figuring ourselves exempt. One night a gentle rapping at my door produced evidence to the contrary. A pleasant woman and her daughter stood there, producing an enormous booklet for me to fill out, entirely in Korean. Some aspects I could decipher: I know the word for “name” at least, and the birth date section had the familiar four/two/two bubble set up. Everything else was a mystery, and my Korean was not up to task to understand the explanations the woman attempted to give. With every word she spoke, the best my brain could produce were quotes from Silence of the Lambs. The woman occasionally turned to her daughter, surely enrolled in two dozen hagwons, one of them certainly English, and urged her to crack out the English she knew. Clearly not expecting to have to use any English that evening, he best the girl had was “cell pone” when it came time for my number.
After ten minutes, we stood dejected with one another, unable to progress further, but the woman had a look of determination in her eyes. Within two days, she had returned, with an even more voluminous census book, this time in glorious English. (The questions, of course, still didn’t make a lot of sense, and asked me the numbers and types of rooms, whether I would classify my apartment facilities as modern, and other various ownership business I’m not even involved in. The woman, helpfully, began interjecting with Korean numbers, informing me what bubbles to fill in. If I had known, I would have just given her my name and let her do the rest.)
-Behold my cellphone charm. My co-teacher produced it from her pocket one day, dropping it on my desk. “I got this, but it won’t go with my phone. Do you want it?” As soon as I saw it, my mind instantly screamed: this looks like Mario (in the Konglish: Shyupo Maryo!). It kind of resembles a Nazi. It also looks like a Korean man. He is delivering mail. Is it a remnant of WWII era history, lodged into the Korean cell phone accoutrement industry via lingering Japanese cultural imperialism? Is it a conglomeration of Western cultural artefacts, a Frankenstein’s monster of randomness coalesced into one bizarre creature? I don’t know that it matters. I snatched it quickly from the desk and thanked my co-teacher.