Saturday, April 6, 2013


My freshmen were wonderful yesterday. Snoopy and Matthew sat together talking about last night’s game, the first time I saw Snoopy (a sophomore) engaged with one of his younger classmates. Sophia and Gina came up at the end of class to check they had a grammar point right. The rest worked hard on a Friday afternoon, a feat perhaps unprecedented by a freshman conversation class.
This is Sunny. The only female cab driver I've ever
heard of - and she's in MY conversation class. After
her kimchi gift, I'm working up the courage to ask for a
taxi ride in a woman's cab before I leave.

Sunny, though, I thought, was surely going to steal the show for the day. She made me kimchi and rice and bought me an entire bag of applies. “Three minutes” she said, especially insistent. “Rice. Three minutes. Korean rice is so delicious.” As that’s a good tenth of her vocabulary, I was not only pleased but honored to eat her kimchi and rice last night for dinner.

But Kaká topped them all. He waited patiently until everyone else was finished before approaching with a painstakingly written note, which he read to me, pointing to the words he spoke one by one.

“Last class, I helped teacher with the radio. I’m sorry. I think it was a mistake.” He looked up at me, checking if I understood.

Radio? I thought. Who uses a radio? Which teacher? Did it make him late last time? I don’t have anything marked on attendance . . .

He said “radio” again, even more insistent than Sunny, and pointed to the spot where, two weeks earlier (our last class in this particular room), he had tugged the class boom box (radio) out of my hands, even after I’d told him not to.

“Oh. Yes. The radio.” I nodded, remembering the frustration of the moment.

He nodded. And then he pointed to the last word on the page.


Then he pointed to his heart.

I can’t put a name to whatever welled up in me as I realized what his apology meant: gratitude, I suppose; surprise certainly; pride for him; and deeply, peace that my anxieties had been understood by both God and by Kaká.
Patrasche. Named after Patrasche, dog of Flanders.
I don't understand either, but it's memorable.

You see, Asia has damaged my ability to relate to men. There was BoomTiger, memorably, and an over-sized sophomore named “Panda” or something who pressed me for a date. YoungBoom, another soccer boy, wanted me to ride to church with him every Sunday and listen to his favorite songs on his phone, sharing ear-buds after a 45-minute acquaintance. Sometimes students will call me pretty or cute, or say “I love you” but it’s an awkward cultural mistranslation, an eagerness to please, inappropriately phrased, stuck somewhere between meaningless and offensive.

Drunk ahjusshis will ask me if I’m Russian (often considered synonymous with “prostitute” among the local Busanites). Middle school boys giggle when I walk by, practicing their just-learned “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” and “I love you.” No, you say it to her! No, you! Say it! Ha ha.

Patrasche, dog of Flanders. Still don't get it.
I refuse to confine myself to the Korean expectations for women when relating to the opposite sex—relegated, it seems, to either cutesy, sexy, or frumpy—but I find myself unable to retain American expectations, either. Misunderstandings like Kaká’s happen all the time. It’s rude in America and in America, I would let a boy know he was being domineering, particularly if he were my student or friend. But I can’t do that here because Kaká was being helpful and sweet—according to Korean standards for men. Moreover, as my senior, he was honoring our relationship as older brother to younger sister. Nothing sexist or domineering about it: seniors have a duty to their little siblings.

I both “get” that and reject it.

I’ve lost my point of reference. It’s not culture shock—nothing shocking about it, after a 18-month dearth of equality-based relationships with men. It is culture disorientation and it’s tough. It’s tough to be twenty-four and forced to consider yourself asexual for the time being, somewhere between Korean and American, unable to hold standards and unwilling to let go of them.

And then, for a bright shining moment on a beautiful, boring Friday, there was Kaká, apologizing. For one moment, my point of reference came back, a gift from a boy I’d previously considered bull-headed. A boy who had wrested a stupid little yellow boom box out of my hands to help me.

I am still amazed that he read the tension of my reaction; I thought I had hid it, at least from him[1]. He overcame the cultural gap—the gap between our ages and relative positions of authority, overcame gender differences—to understand not perhaps everything that was wrong, but that there was something worth apologizing for. He was “stricken” for a harmless—beneficent, even—mistake he’d made.

My freshmen are marvelous.
Chuck gave this year's best answer to two of my hardest interview questions: "How can I pray for you?" and "What is the best job you can ever have?"
"To be a good father."
My freshmen are rockin'.
Foreground: Kelly (left) and Alice (right). Both are smart but very soft-spoken.
Friday's haul: home-made kimchi, rice, apples, lemon/limey crackers, Angel-in-Us mocha, and an entire box of honey tea. Like Asian Christmas!
P.S. I now know what causes the highlighting. And I can't fix it.

[1] My students are much more attentive to my attitudes, I realize, than my words.

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy reading these. How sweet of him to apologize.