– by Rachel Fauth –
This fall, Fulbright ETAs share their experiences adjusting and adapting to new cultures – and the challenges, humor, and new ways of seeing the world that come with diving into life in another country. Read the full series here.
This piece was written by Rachel Fauth, a 2016-2017 ETA at Changpyeong High School in Damyang, Jeollanam-do. This article was originally published in Infusion.
I am at the three-quarter mark of a lesson on the past tense “used to.” The phrase can be used in three ways, according to my handwriting, which has suddenly become law: to utilize; to be accustomed to; to talk about a past action or behavior. The students chant the bullet points. Chanting doesn’t teach them anything other than the fact that they’re in class, but repetition is a mystifying and alluring thing. The rhythm reinforces our relationship—my voice solo, theirs in unison, repeating me, repeating the sounds and the shape of my mouth. I feel the excess chaos of the classroom—shuffling paper, scrapings of leftover side conversations—get all swept up into a sort of wind tunnel, swirl up and disappear as their voices get progressively more pointed. “To-talk-about-the-past,” they say. “To-talk-about-the-past.” It’s unfortunate because chanting is no indication of anyone’s success despite how oddly good it feels.
I gesture at the TV monitor, humming at me with static. A photo of a green-eyed, curly-haired man from the waist up flashes on screen. This is a famous Australian singer. I’ve started using the word “famous” in my presentations more often; it grabs their attention immediately, like proof that other Americans unanimously agree my class material is important.
“And what is his most famous song called?”
They read aloud from the TV: “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
“So does he still know this person?”
“When did he know them?”
“In the past!”
“Is this possible?””
“…No? Yes, no?”
“Why or why not?”
One student in the front answers with confidence, “Because when you know someone, you always know them. Because, memory.”
“Thank you. That’s good.”
* * *
Thirty-one girl-students in identical uniforms tossing my inflatable watermelon ball around class, asking each other the given prompt: “What-did-you-used-to-do-when-you-were-12?” A lot of squealing, some screaming laughter. In this moment there’s a quick and total wave of relief that spreads out from the epicenter of my chest. Loud is better than quiet. I think a quiet class is learning nothing, thinking nothing, retaining nothing, wishing me away. One student answers, “When I was 12, I used to play piano,” tentative and smiling, “but now I don’t because no pianos here.” Faint giggle, throw, ask, catch, answer, repeat.
While the game goes on there’s one girl in the back row who’s turning all sorts of colors. Her cheeks yellow and pink at the same time, as if they’re actively bruising. She’s blushing like a chameleon and staring at the floor, then the ceiling, then the floor. Her mouth is just a line. From my vantage point at the front of the room I could see her while other students couldn’t, and in this moment I become aware of how different the perspective of student and teacher really is. How singular it is, expansive and sweeping—I could see all 31 of them at once, I could measure their expressions in my peripheral view, I could compare them, survey them; if I’d opened my arms all the way, it would look like I was reaching across every desk at once though I absolutely wasn’t.
* * *
“Music video!” The lyrics start rolling. Dictation exercise in palatable form. Listen closely to the song, watch the video (has minor nudity!) and try to fill in the missing words. Her face looks broken now, succumbing to gravity. How many of my classmates, when I was in high school, wore faces like hers, and I couldn’t see it from where my desk was? But the teacher could? Could my teachers tell when my face fell like hers? The lyrics are singing, Now and then I think of when we were together. / Like when you said you felt so happy you could die.
Girl-students are distracted by the man-nipple that appears fleetingly on screen. Squealing, some screaming with laughter. I float over to her in a way I hope is inconspicuous and ask her, “Gwaenchanayo? Okay?” Extremely limited Korean to offer. “Yes,” and she begins sobbing. I have to ask more than once for her to leave the classroom; it’s like she’s glued to the chair.
* * *
In the hallway:
“Is it…your studies?” First guess. “Stressed out?”
“No,” she says, the waterline to her eyes doing its job, brimming.
A male teacher—red polo tucked into his pants, hair parted neatly to one side, black leather belt, nods to me and strides past us down the stairwell. He disappears in a wind-tunnel and the situation settles around me like dust. I feel empty-handed, ill-equipped, vacant arsenal of Korean vocabulary ready to fail me at a time when English will most certainly be abrasive.
“Yes, my mother, dead.”
“When? Eonje?” I think about processing—what it means to process, the verb.
“Today.” Her small hands and small face, the perfect size for each other. I want my arms to be long enough, longer. Other teachers know her mother died today and still she’s sitting in my class, in other classes. Tonight she’ll go to Seoul, to the hospital, but not until after the school day’s over and she’s cleaned her assigned corner of the school. Behind her there’s a row of different colored metallic mops leaned up against the wall and for a moment they look expectant.
The girl goes on to apologize to me, to me, “I’m sorry, Teacher,” and motions to go back to class. I say, “No, I am sorry,” but the expression doesn’t work that way in Korean. The air around her crumples like a sheet of thick gray paper.
* * *
At dinner last night, my host father started choking on a duck bone, briefly. He turned his head and swiveled away from the table towards the far wall of the restaurant and faced backwards. He sat there coughing, not exactly “up a lung” but for a considerable length of time, an uncomfortable length of time, while his wife and daughter volleyed conversation in a different direction. And I watched. There wasn’t a mention of “Are you okay?” or “Gwaenchanayo?”
In more places than this one, it seems culturally inappropriate and straight rude to call attention to someone’s struggle, but especially if it’s turned physically ugly, like coughing or choking or heart-breaking what have you. “Losing face.” Try not to make someone lose face by embarrassing them and asking if they need help. And yet I cannot help but beg the question, who will ask my student if she needs help? Who will take her up to the hospital in Seoul? Who will give her a place to sit when she walks out and away from my class? Who? And admittedly, judgmentally, naturally I find myself asking who did nothing; which of her instructors ignored all the shades of grief that bloomed in the back of class while she visibly swayed in and out of thought?
* * *
I resume my place at the podium. Thirty girl-students arranged in an immovable grid before me as I turn my back, the greasy chalk easily making a mark. I start talking, and the words coming out don’t match the words in my head. I feel two separate trains of thought taking off from the same station, going in opposite directions. She’s still standing outside where I had to leave her. Eventually, her blurred black hair goes past the windows, towards the third-floor staircase that punctuates the end of a long, white hallway and she goes out. Out through the swinging doors of a big white building so not built for emotion.
Rachel is an ETA in Damyang, Jeollanam-do, South Korea.