Lunch and tea time were an exercise in cultural differences. My coworkers know I’m on a diet and asked if I’ve lost weight (two pounds actually, but I don’t know if that’s from purposeful exercise or just having to walk up a billion flights of stairs every morning).
At tea time they asked “what’s the best race in the USA” and I was so taken aback until they rephrased as “what’s the best race stereotype” at which a giant neon sign flashed in front of me saying “You are not qualified for this conversation!”. But then G said something about “Negros” and I had to gently explain why we don’t use that word anymore.
“Oh my goodness I had no idea. Thank you for correcting me.” Now I love G but she lived in the US for 17 years and this makes me think she was in a very Korean bubble while there. I ended up giving a brief history of US civil rights and why American politics are not so simple and realized hours later I could have just given some dumb stereotypes and called it a day.
I’m trying to represent all of America but I’m not doing it well so I’ve learned my lesson: give my experience and point out I’m only one of many many Americans.
During tea time the male teacher said “you look blue these days” but the only time I see him is during lunch when I zone out because I cannot keep up with their Korean conversations. I’m frustrated that my listening progress seems stalled but it’s hard to track progress when you’re in it.
Now that we’ve covered my embarrassments let’s progress to comedy:
In Korean class last Tuesday I asked the teacher why cow-meat and pig-meat and chicken-meat all mean food but water-meat means live fish. My Canadian classmate laughed and said to me “why are you always fighting him.” Because, K, I need answers or something more than “idk that’s just how it is”. Give me some etymology, bro!
During our ten minute break in class today we all joked about one classmate being a secret drug dealer. At the end of class our Korean American teenage classmate, who’s traveling on a gap year, told us “this is my last class. I’m going to Japan then heading back to the US.”
“Paul,” I cried, “we spent ten whole minutes pretending Scott was a drug lord and you waited until NOW to tell us?”
“Yeah but that conversation was fun.”
Korean class is difficult and frustrating and sometimes demoralizing (“Koreans won’t speak to you slowly so I won’t either” “b-but this is level 2 of six”) but at least my classmates are fun. I still miss my Hankuk Uni teacher though ㅠㅠ*
I ran into my UF engineer friend after class and he told me “once you get over the culture shock you’ll never want to leave. Things are safer and easier and more organized here.” He also added that I’ll never be fluent unless I have a patient Korean boyfriend (applications are open).
Before lunch some sixth graders came careening down the hall to wash their hands at light speed.
“Why are you all in such a hurry?”
“Today is 탕수육!”
“What is that?” I could see the gears turning in their heads.
“Um out… 튀김” I know this dish as fried seafood from the one time a summer classmate and I ordered it blindly off a menu at a local diner.
“Ah! Okay fried”
“And in…. meat”
“What kind of meat?”
”돼지고기! 소고기! Chicken!”
“Uh… that’s three kinds.”
“Ah 돼지고기! 돼지고기”
“I see. Fried pork?”
“Yes okay bye” and they sprinted into the distance to be first in line at lunch.
Some 3-1 students arrived early and were assigned cleaning to spend the time. One good English student said “look teacher!” And twirled around on a wet wipe.
“Are you Yuna Kim?” I ended up teaching her and some other girls who also wanted to spin how to say “I can/can’t skate”.
I also worked with grade three to correct their pronunciation of purple and orange. Since Korean uses both of these as loan words students are accustomed to using Korean pronunciation (“po-pull, orangey”). I separated and enunciated and after some practice said it fast several times in a row or very low or very high. They repeated and we all thought it was funny. Glad to see that many things from online teaching are directly transferable.
Later I ran into a group of fourth graders, including three from the playground yesterday. They must have been on break and followed me around giggling, like my own ducklings. I linked arms with two of the girls and told them “we are BLACKPINK” and strutted down the hall together.
Korean linguistic note of the day:
Korean uses yes and no differently than English and other Latin based languages.
네 [neh] yes: confirmation or agreement with the proposed question
아니요 [ah ni yo] no: disagreement
This carries over to English when I ask my friends or students or coworkers questions.
연필이 있어요? Do you have a pencil?
네, 연필이 있어요. Yes, I have a pencil.
연필이 없어요? You don’t have a pencil?
네, 연필이 없어요. Yes, I don’t have a pencil.
There are often times when I ask a negative question like, you didn’t print the papers? And my coworker will respond “yes”. In turn I also have this difficulty in Korean. I often negate when I mean to confirm, but I am getting better! When answering simple sentences at least.
*If you’ve never actively studied a second language or used it, you might think: Abigail wow you seem to complain a lot about learning. Firstly, I want to do something that is uncommon on social media which is to be honest about my ups and downs.
Secondly, learning and speaking another language is incredibly frustrating and vulnerable and exciting. Having taken French class, Czech class, all the Spanish classes to complete my minor, and both self study/church/university Korean classes, as well as having taught non native speakers for over two years, I know what makes a good teacher for me and what doesn’t.
I’m also understanding more why the US Department of State lists Korean as the most difficult and time-consuming language. Korean right now seems endless. There are honorific levels and politeness levels and infinite conjugations which add very subtle nuance to every day sentences.
In contrast, English does not have politeness levels. And in English to add nuance we usually do so by adding different words (just/I think/ever).
Korean is very different in the sense that the way you conjugate your verb is how you express surprise or supposition or basic future tense or confirmation of a statement, etc. To learn Korean you have to learn Korean culture otherwise you won’t know when to use what politeness level or a Chinese versus Korean word or special honorific nouns.
And on a fun final note my Thai friend Nana taught me the word for confused, which is ridiculously long and, wouldn’t you know it, confusing:
P.S. My sweet baby Paul, I hope you’re doing well.