Vignettes from September

A series of brief encounters from the first half of the semester. This month’s mishmash of topics includes SpongeBob Squarepants, life as a foreigner, loneliness, North Korea, and Jell-O.

On SpongeBob Squarepants

“They’re watching SpongeBob!” I said excitedly as the two nephews bounced up and down on Host Mom’s bed to the rhythm of the nautical theme song.

“You like SpongeBob?” Ye Bin asked.

“Yes! It was my favorite show as a kid!”

“Me too. I like Ping Ping!”

I paused. “Who’s Ping Ping?”

Ye Bin looked surprised and said in a “no duh!” type of voice, “His pet!”

“Gary is Ping Ping?!”

“Who’s Gary?!”


On My Name

“Teacher – what is your name?” asked one of my students as I walked into the classroom on the first day of class.

“My name is Janine,” I said, writing my name in English and hangul on the blackboard.

“Janine?! You are evil person from Divergent!”


On Learning Words Through Trial and Error

Doe?” Host Mom asked as she looked at my empty bowl of soup.

“Doe?” I repeated, looking at the bowl I had pushed away from my place setting. Was that Konglish for “done,” like when my students say “fin-neesh-ee” for “finished”?

Ne,” I answered, nodding my head.

Then Host Mom stood up, took the empty bowl, and returned a few seconds later with a full bowl of broth.

And that’s how I learned that doe means “more.”


On Being a Foreigner

“I don’t like foreigners in my country.”

The teacher’s eyes narrowed. The lips pursed tightly together. The rest of the English department looked up from our textbook in surprise. Our weekly discussion topic was about declining birth rates in Korea, and I had known we were moving into uncomfortable territory as soon as the conversation turned to immigration policies. But how do I react to that?!

I put my hand over my heart, made an affectation of surprise, and said with a small laugh, “But I’m foreign! I thought we were friends!”

The teacher realized the blunder. Softening a little, the teacher responded, “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. Just…I’m traditional. Korea is for Koreans. Koreans should marry Koreans. We don’t want an identity crisis!”

Some of the other teachers tried to mitigate the brutally honest words, and I gradually steered the topic back to maternity leave policies as a factor in population rates.

The topic has not come up again, and the teacher is friendly like before. But that day is still hard to forget.


On My Student Calling Me a Foreigner

“Teacher, were you at Daiso on Sunday?”

I looked up at the student who had come into the English office looking for me. “Yes,” I said, surprised. “Were you there, too?”

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I saw a foreigner at Daiso on Sunday, so I thought it was you!”

Really?! I’m just a foreigner to you, too? I shrugged it off and smiled. “Next time, just say hello!”

“Okay, Teacher!”


On Friendship and Loneliness

“Janine, are you lonely?”

My most advanced student looked at me across the desk where we were holding our 1:1 English conversation club. I hesitated before answering. The truth was, yes, I had been feeling lonely lately. My friends in Korea lived at least an hour and a half away, most of them even farther. My friends from college were 7000 miles and 13 time zones away. I was getting Villanova alumni newsletters that reminded me how much I missed university classes and activities. I missed having face-to-face conversations with American English speakers. I even missed having English “conversations” with my parrot!

“Sometimes I get lonely,” I admitted. “But I always look for something that makes me happy. I miss my American friends, but I have two Korean host sisters who are my best friends here. That makes it better.”

“I get lonely too,” my student said sadly. “My friends say I’m fat. Answer impersonal: am I fat?”

“No, not at all.”

“Really? I think I’m fat. My friends are mean to me sometimes. They don’t understand me.”

“It sounds like you need friends who make you feel better about yourself, not worse.”

“How do I do that? How do I like myself? Do you love yourself?”

Strange. I was having a conversation with my student that I might have had with myself in high school. What would I tell my high school self? What could I tell my student?

“Yes, I do,” I answered slowly, understanding his frustration but not feeling remotely qualified to help. “Sometimes it just takes time. I didn’t learn to love myself until I was almost in college. When I went to college, I met new friends, I studied what I liked, I did more activities I enjoyed, and I was much happier than I was in high school. Things change. People change. It’s part of growing up.”

“High school is hard,” he agreed. “We’re always studying. But it gets better?”

“Yes, it gets better.”

His face relaxed a bit more as the bell rang and he scampered off to class. It was one of those rare moments when without a massive language barrier, I could see what my students were really like. And, perhaps, show that I can understand them, too.


On Shipping Me to North Korea

“You get to decide my future!” I said dramatically, writing the letters MASH at the top of the board and listing four categories labeled “Husband,” “Job,” “Kids,” and “City.”

“Pick four choices for each category,” I explained. “Then, we will cross some of them off and see my future!”

Some of my classes (usually the girls) wanted to give me the best future possible. “Marry Iron Man! Live in New York! Be an actress!” they said. “You’re a model! You’re a teacher! Live in Seoul!”

By contrast, the boys took a perverse delight in creating the worst possible future for me.

“Pyongyang!” yelled one of the boys when they listed possible cities in which I would live.

“North Korea?!” I said incredulously.

Laughing like maniacs, the boys chanted, “Pyongyang! Pyongyang!”

Sure enough, the game results were that I would be a subway cleaner in Pyongyang and have 1 million kids with my co-teacher. I liked it better when I lived in a mansion in Paris with Captain America.


On Pleasant Surprises

I walked back to the English office, balancing my laptop, two speakers, the textbook, and my prize box in my hands. Four of my students were standing outside of the office, waiting for someone to unlock the door.

“Hi, Teacher!” said one of the girls.

“Hi!” I answered, readjusting the stuff in my hands and fumbling for my key. “How are you today?”

“Fine, thank you! Teacher, for you!” The girl held out a little cup of Jell-O. “It’s dessert!”

“Oh – thank you very much!”

She gingerly placed the Jell-O on top of the laptop in my hands as I turned the key in the door. Then she giggled and ran off. “Bye, Teacher!”

I laughed as I sat at my desk and opened the cup. My students are awfully cute.


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