4.2 Fall 2022

August 27, A grand return

I arrived to my thankfully not fly-infested nor flooded apartment after 2.5 weeks away somewhere around three in the morning. I hadn’t slept for 36 hours and it didn’t look like I’d be sleeping much more– I had to teach debate a mere six hours later.

You definitely don't have time to sleep. | Buddy the elf, The elf, Finals  week
Source: the movie Elf.

I unpacked my entire suitcase, I am that person, and then tried on a bunch of unrelated fitness outfits that were a little tighter after the post American vacation weight gain. I think I slept a full two hours and then rolled out of bed to run to the elementary school to pick up all the debate materials I had forgotten.

Despite my body floating in the corporeal plane, debate went smoothly. Despite the (of course) last minute notice that someone from the office of education would be observing our class.

Somehow the kids, girls and boys all, are taller than me now. It’s only been two months since our last class but I guess the damp Korean summers do something for my students going through puberty.

We warmed up with pronunciation trivia, Would You rather (standard fare), and then hot potato with a questionably sticky pink bouncy ball I found in my desk drawer.

We took a break and I wondered where our observer was, or if he was even coming at all. That question was answered as soon as I came out of the bathroom and saw the debate co-teacher Young and an older man sitting amongst the tables in the hallway.

I introduced myself and was then roped into conversation. The man’s eyes shone with an almost uncomfortable level of sincerity as he talked in Korean about feeling inadequate in his English skills. I got the distinct feeling that Young had been wading through a mid-life crisis heart-to-heart while the kids and I had been playing hot potato. She told him that he was in fact very accomplished and I sensed this is something she had said in a few different ways already. He continued on, telling me that just from listening through the open class door he could tell I had a good relationship with the students and was proud of this program. I offered to have him sit inside to really see us which he immediately declined.

The English fear is strong; the kids had been afraid of being observed and yet their observer was even more afraid…

He asked about my Korea story and salary, which is public knowledge and set by the government, and I don’t know if he concluded it was too low or too high. I have to assume the former. He then said it would be great to have an English teacher, or a foreign friend.

I’m too good at my job, I thought somewhat bitterly. Around every corner is a golden opportunity for extra money that my public school E2 visa prevents me from taking. I’m a hot commodity! I just wish my elementary school saw it that way. The various high school teachers that have overseen debate have all been extremely welcoming, complimentary, and generous; they often reach out to me to double check grammar and test questions. I feel needed, and it’s nice.

As you know, I can’t say that’s exactly the case at my main school where homeroom teachers don’t even come to class despite it being policy that I’m not alone with the students…

The observer continued to talk, well past the end of the break time I had set for the students. Young, with impeccable grace, steered him into saying goodbye and there was thankfully no more mention of foreign friendship.

I went back to class and announced that the kids were free, the observer would not be coming in. They sagged in relief.

We moved on to practicing a ridiculous topic which they took great joy in shouting about. A few months prior, one student suggested debating “the perilla leaf controversy” for which I needed an explanation.

At Korean restaurants, the main dish comes with an assortment of side dishes. One is marinated perilla leaves that are stacked together. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate one leaf from the top of the pile without un-massing five or more.

Korean Pickled Perilla Leaves (Kkaennip Jangajji) - My Korean Kitchen

In this scenario, a couple is out to dinner along with the girlfriend’s friend. The friend struggles to pick up a leaf and the boyfriend, using his chopsticks to hold the pile down, assists in her efforts.

The question is, is this acceptable?

Of course, the first time I heard this I laughed. What are you talking about? What’s the problem? The fifteen-year-olds had to explain it to me: the boyfriend is not only committing an intimate act by using his own chopsticks to help out a woman who is not his girlfriend, but he also had to pay close attention to the friend in order to even notice that she was struggling.

I was still confused. “So he’s suppose to just… let the friend struggle? Do you hate helpful, attentive men?”

It felt incredibly juvenile.

I brought this up to Anthony when we were at dinner with the robots and he agreed it was a nothing scenario. However, he did propose another: is it okay if your boyfriend zips up your female friend’s long padded jacket?

I had to pause and suck air through my teeth.

“Hmm, that feels different.”

“I would think that girl is a fox [Korean saying for sly woman using her charms for evil] for pretending to need help.”

Zipping up someone’s long padded jacket feels way more intimate than picking apart leaves with chopsticks.

I asked the students for their personal opinions and everyone fell in the middle. After two hours of heated debate, several students had flipped firmly into yes or no camps.

The kids seemed to have a great time and agreed that we should do another silly topic next time, like is pineapple pizza actually any good. We did an air high five and then class was dismissed, into Young’s arms full of snacks. One girl handed me a huge bag of hot pepper sun chips which would become my lunch.

The students filed out and Young caught me on the way.

“Our principal majored in English. She’s really interested in our debate team,” Young told me, eyes nervous over her mask.

“I want to make sure the students are prepared for the tournament,” she added, and I knew she didn’t want to be embarrassed if we showed up unprepared.

I know that feeling well because last year’s debate students showed up in sweatpants and read their speech from a crumpled piece of paper. At least my son had made a PPT, but the girls who had been dragged by their ears to attend protested by putting zero effort into the required presentation.

“I don’t know when they’ll tell us but I’ll help the students prepare as much as I can,” I promised Young, having cold flashbacks to the begrudging students of last year.

Young, nervous now that the pressure was on, told me she would be present for the remaining sessions. Instead of having four different co-teachers this semester, I’ll have just the one, who is as committed to having the students do well as I am.

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