Hi kids. Been a while. Like almost three months.
Today I wanna tell you about 우협(U-hyop, long u, short o. Rhymes with Lou [the] fop). I only had the pleasure of teaching 우협 for two classes. This was back in May. One of our teachers (we'll call her Judy Garland, for she fancied herself a musical actress) had just taken off in the middle of the night over the weekend. Seriously. On Friday night she was drinking with friends and by Sunday morning, she had emailed one of us from Canada. Doing the math, we figured she must have hopped on a plane by noon on Saturday at least. There was shock, everyone scrambled, and in a couple of weeks it was forgotten. Though I didn't get to know her particularly well, and what I did know of her didn't make much of an impression, this was the beginning of a long, seemingly continuous string of goodbyes that would characterize much of my year to date. But anyway, when Judy left, in order to make up for our sudden lack of a teacher, our boss shuffled classes around in a rather complex scheme, the logic of which I have yet to penetrate. (I have yet to penetrate a lot of logic here. Maybe some logic is best left unpenetrated.) Somehow, I ended up teaching a few of Judy's classes, and it was through this twist of fate that I met 우협. Walking into the classroom, it was immediately clear that Judy was not much of a stickler for discipline. The kids were noisy and bubbly, an atmosphere that could potentially be a lot of fun but was a) not particularly conducive to learning and b) for me, as a new teacher practically still jet-lagged, terrifying. I quickly silenced them all with my best stern teacher-voice and was surprised to find that they were surprised to find and apparently completely unaware of the fact that they weren't allowed to just speak Korean, loudly, over my voice. It was excruciatingly cute, their gaping mouths when I informed them that they'd have to be quiet for a little while I spoke. I almost threw-up from the adorable-ness. So, 우협 was one of these kids and he was a cut above the rest. I am relatively certain that he was actually a reincarnated machine-gun, brought to life in the form of a six-year-old the size of a four-year-old. When he wanted to answer a question, if he had somehow stopped talking long enough for me to ask one, he would put up his hand and shriek "Teacher" at least five or six-hundred times a second, for as many seconds as it took me to get his name in edgewise. Having received his cue that it was his turn to talk, he would promptly stand up, run to the front of the class, then the back of the class, then up the wall, across the ceiling and backflip into his chair, chattering the whole time. I was never really sure what he said, I was never really sure of anything while he was in the room. He had succeeded in shifting my perception of reality so much that I was frightened and bewildered whenever he was around. In short, he was the six-year-old Korean equivalent of a peyote button, on cocaine. Alas, thank god, I only had the pleasure of teaching 우협 for two or three days before the schedules were again shifted in interesting ways and I was back in my own classroom fulltime. This was not, however, the end of my relationship with 우협. He seemed to have taken a shine to me. Everyday for a couple weeks, when he was released from his holding pen near the washrooms, he would race past my classroom on the way to the his, and his head would pop through my door for a split second with "Hiteacher!", before disappearing, leaving me wondering if I had just seen him or not. It was a bit like that part in Fight Club when Tyler Durden splices a single frame of pornography into a disney cartoon, though in this case the 우협 is the pornography and the disney cartoon is me trying to convince myself to wake up as I ponder over my schedule for the day. One morning, while I was talking with another teacher about something undoubtedly boring, he appeared and yelled "Teacher!". I raised my head, and as his face broke into a huge grin, he thrust his middle finger into the air with a proud "Puck you!" and then ran off.
"Excuse me for me a minute, I think I need to talk to him."
I followed the scent of afterburner tinged with dried squid and chili paste and found 우협 in a classroom down the hall. I pulled him aside and informed him that what he said, and his chosen gesture, weren't the most appropiate means of saying hello to a teacher. This was quite difficult, because reflexively I was trying to avoid saying the words myself and trying to use sign language to illustrate the gesture without actually making it. After looking confused for most of the conversation, 우협 seemed to understand that it was not okay to say "Puck you" or to flip me the bird. I patted him on the head and sent him on his way, feeling that I had somehow just done something very teacherly and wholesome. To be clear, I'm not a big fan of teacherly and wholesome, so I threw a kid out the window as soon as I got back to my class.
The next day, I was again rubbing sleep from my eyes and blearing at the schedule, when I heard a familiar patter of little feet running up to my door. 우협 poked his head in and thrust his fist (middle finger retracted) into the air and yelled "Teacher! No puck you!" Apparently, I hadn't quite sent the right message.
It's a pretty strange feeling, to have your associations thrown out in the cold. I've heard lots of Koreans say "Fuck" quite nonchalantly, seen the middle-finger thrown up in choreographed dance numbers by effeminate b-boys, and noticed a general lack of shock and reverence for the power of this word. I use the word all the time in my daily speech, I have a pretty vile mouth really, but it still sends a little shock through me whenever I hear someone use it here in a really public atmosphere. Of course there's no shock in it for the Koreans, why would there be, if I told you how to swear in another language, I'm sure you'd be pretty comfortable saying it to your mother, there's no association of the word with those stomach-dropping experiences of getting caught saying something that's going to get you in a lot of trouble.
On one of my first days here my partner teacher, Ms. Shin, came to me and told me that the students really like their new foreign teacher. They apparently said, "oh, foreigner teacher is very kind and funny and likes to play games." Never mind that I was playing a lot of games at that time because I hadn't yet figured out how to stretch a two-page lesson into a meaningful 45 minutes. Then, smiling constantly, and in sentences punctuated with laughter, she told me that one of the reasons they like me so much was because their last teacher "maybe used to say--only joking--'puck you' and 'shaddup' (insert more nervous laughter here.)" My jaw dropped to hear this 50-something, very polite, Korean woman giggle "puck you" at me. I sputtered that, where I come from (said in my best Texan accent), you can't say that to kids. She replied that he was "just joking maybe." But I was wondering for a while if the Koreans have equivalent words that are taboo. I have since learned a few Korean dirty words and it seems from my experience that who you say them to is way more important than the words themselves. Case in point, my girlfriend and I were sitting in a restaurant while she was explaining what some of these words meant, and I got (mildly) uncomfortable that there were some 10 year old kids nearby. When I explained the constipated look on my face, she just laughed and said, "Oh they know a lot worse." This struck me as a great attitude. Not that you need to give kids ideas for terrible things to say to each other, but that hell, they are just words, and the kids know most of them anyways. It should be said that we were discussing words (the korean equivalents of "fuck you" and "son of a bitch") that these kids would definitely know. I'm sure she would've had a different attitude had I spit out the Korean equivalent of the "c-word", which would be written "boji" in the roman alphabet. (For the record, I really like the c-word, but my mom reads this blog and it freaks her out, your welcome mom.) In any case, I'm off to see if I can get some yoga and climbing in before work. Haven't seen 우협 in a while, maybe he finally moved too fast for space and time and became a part of the underlying energy of the universe. Or maybe he changed hagwons.