3.1 Spring 2021

April 16, Birthday Countdown

I talk to my kids in a mix of Korean and English, often incorrectly mixing them when I don’t know words: “students, 9 moods 그리세요”.

I ask my kids all the time to translate and teach me words; they know I’m not trying to disrespect our languages. In fact, they are exuberantly happy to help this old teacher.

Earlier this week I misspoke when trying to explain “tired” and the kids were quick to correct. “Sorry sorry my bad,” I replied.

One absolute legend said “it’s okay, it’s okay, no worries,” with a certain feeling of recognizing that I made an effort and the mistake was not serious. She said it with a sort of wry gravitas that many adults are unable to grasp.

Kids are more observant than they get credit for.

Today I really hadn’t dressed up, at least what I considered to be dressy, for my birthday week. In fact, my mother would hate what I put on.

Yet my brown dress over a black turtleneck with a knotted hairband drew praise from female teachers and students alike. It must be Korean style because a parent started a conversation with me in the hall before quickly backing away upon realizing I’m not a native.

“Pretty!” One girl commented. I did an exaggerated hair flip and said thank you.

“Beautiful!” Another girl added. I did an even more exaggerated hair flip.

“No!” One boy disagreed.

I popped up from behind the desk where I was fiddling the getting my USB in correctly. (Wrong on the first guess as usual.)

“Did you say no?” I gasped. “I will kill you!” I dramatically gestured like Hamlet. The kids laughed.

Last week Seventeen fan doppelgänger commented about accents and today I showed them a clip of four different English speakers. They were able to hear the difference between American, English, Australian, and South African accents on words like daughter and leisure. Differentiating accents is not easy to do at a low level so I’m proud of their good ears!

5-2, the class with the doppelgänger and the teacher studying TESOL on the weekends, is just precious and taught me “snake” in Korean.

“What’s snake?” I asked in English.

“Snake.” They answered.

“No, I mean—“ I laughed in exasperation. Kids are the best unintentional comedians. “What’s snake in Korean?”

“뱀!” Ten students shouted at varying decibel levels.

“ㅂ ㅏ ㅣ ㅁ?”*

“Yes, yes that’s right.” They confirmed after shouting me through spelling it in Korean on the board.

One girl from 5-4, Olivia, who drew me a note on my first day, followed me out of class to give me a candy.

“Oh, it’s my birthday soon so this is a gift!”

She asked in Korean what date it is and then asked for my phone number, presumably to text me a happy birthday.

“You know that’s a no,” you little weirdo I did not add as I laughed. She called out happy birthday as I descended the stairs.

My coworkers presented me with a birthday cake topped with three lit candles.

“Is three right?” Jack asked.


“Because your Korean age is thirty.”

“…..yes.” I suppose three candles are easier than twenty nine.

After lunch when Jack had disappeared as per usual, Helen and I got to talking.

“Can I ask how old you are?” I had no idea and couldn’t guess. I would’ve assumed around my age.

“I’m… ten years before. Wait. After? I’m ten years older.”


Helen is very petite and well dressed with not a wrinkle on her face.

She lives with her parents as the usual Korean way. I asked her if she wants to get married and she said “maybe if I really love someone but I like my life as it is.”

I nodded before she finished. A good marriage can improve your life and a mediocre marriage can make you miserable.

This is especially true here since Korea is more patriarchal, and among other things the wife is expected to prepare ancestral rites for her husband’s family as well as prepare food for all major holidays and take care of the children, often in addition to working full time. Traditional marriage is less and less appealing for the modern Korean woman.

Helen asked if I want to get married.

“When I was younger I wanted to and worried about it a lot. But good partners are surprisingly difficult to find. Now I think regardless of a partner, I’m more interested in having children. So I need think about saving money for adoption fees.”

I don’t know what the future holds but it’s easier to plan for having children than plan to fall in love. One is a choice and the other is dumb luck.

Helen said as the enters her 40s she just wants a comfortable life.

“These days after school I just go home, lay down, and watch YouTube.”

I often do the same…

But I’d still like to blame it on COVID. When you can’t leave the country or gather in groups bigger than 5 or see the bottom half of people’s faces free time takes a boring turn.

It’s interesting, and necessary, to talk to women older than me and see how perspectives change over time. When I can’t add to my bank of experiences, I should borrow a book from the library of someone else.

*ㅐ and ㅔare pronounced the same in modern Korean (short E like /bet/ in English) so to confirm spelling, people say 아 이 for ㅐ and 어 이 for ㅔ.

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