The Rion Can Lun

While job hunting for schools in Korea to teach at, I had to constantly email my resume and photographs of me.  One school had a website where you could upload your information directly to the school, rather than work through a recruiter.  There was a browse button next to the words “uproad resume here.’  I smiled, clicked on the browse button and selected my resume.  As it loaded, the screen said, ‘uproading…’

“Kevin, you gotta see this,” I said to my boyfriend.  He was sitting beside me in the bar.  I pointed at the screen.  “Uproading!”

He chuckled.  Our friend Melissa is Hmong, and has difficulty pronouncing her r’s  , and we joke about it with her.  She’ll admit the hardest words for her are ‘rear wheel drive,’ which come out sounding like ‘weah weeow dwive.’  Often times, instead of saying ‘cheers,’ we Melissa-ize it into “Cheas!”

It’s one thing to pronounce words wrong, but to write them on a school website incorrectly?  I shut down my computer instead of uproading my picture and submitting my information.

After several rounds of drinks and good natured cheasing, we finally were ready to leave the bar.  By this time, we were as politically incorrect as could be.  “Deck the harrrs with barrrs of horrry, fa rarararaaa ra ra ra raaaa!” Kevin sang.  I giggled and joined in.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

I found a good school in Pohang and moved to South Korea.  My first day in my new school had me more nervous than starting kindergarten at age five.  I dressed modestly, and walked with Mandy from our apartments to work.  I spent the day sitting in the back of her classroom, watching her go through a typical Wednesday.

“Some of us joke about what we’re going to do when we have to go back home and get real jobs,” she had told me earlier. “It’s cake work.  Most of the time you’re just an overpaid tape recorder.

I watched her, and within a few classes, I had learned my first Korean word.  Dadahaseyo.  Repeat after me.

One of her early classes was filled with tiny squirmy kids.  They shyly turned to look at me, and when I smiled, they whipped their head back towards the comfort of a teacher they already knew.  “Dadahaseyo,” Mandy said to them, “Yes, the rabbit can jump.”

“Yes, the labbit can jump,” the kids responded, using their infliction to mirror Mandy’s.

“Yes, the lion can run,” Mandy said.

“Yes, the rion can lun,” the children repeated.  I smiled.  Uproading, I thought.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

After three days of training, I finally was able to start teaching my own classes.  There was a major swine flu scare right before I arrived in Korea, so I got used to seeing most of my kids with little cloth masks wrapped behind their ears and covering their noses and mouths.

The germ paranoia cracked me up.  “Koreans think the bad germs come from foreigners,” Mandy had told me.  I rarely saw people wash their hands after using the toilet, but a mask would protect students from the diseased air that I was exhaling.

Day two of teaching, I was walking around a swarm of students trying to get into my classroom.  My boss was checking their temperatures one at a time before letting them in my room.  As I attempted to walk around her, she stuck the same thermometer in my ear.  I was slightly horrified at shared earwax (something I saw as much dirtier than shared air) but too timid to do much more than sit there and wait for my healthy temperature result.

My teaching was very off, and I wondered if my students could tell I was nervous.  I’d remember the easy days in America of pouring beers and mixing cocktails.  I’d been great at managing my time at work so I could close the bar in an efficient manner.  Now I was fumbling to teach each class for one full hour.  Usually I’d rush through my material, and have 20 minutes to kill at the end of class.  And so I began relying heavily on hangman.

The only problem was that half the time I couldn’t understand the students.  I’d gotten used to Koreans adding a vowel sound on the end of words (like “cute-uh” or “large-ee”), and they did it to letter names as well.  ‘S’ became “essuh,” ‘h’ became “achie.”  But they would say “vwee” and I’d be baffled.  The students would start drawing “V’s” in the air with their fingers.  Or they’d say “Gee” and I’d think they meant the letter G.  So I’d write G, and they’d yell out, “NO teacher, “G! G!” and draw Z’s in the air with their fingers.

*                *                      *                      *                      *

By my second month in Korea I had learned a few words and walked around happy to speak them any chance that I could.  By my third month, I was ready to learn how to read.  I learned a few of the consonants, but could not wrap my mind around the many, many vowel sounds.

One day I went to wire money back to my bank in America, and I brought an Intro to Korean book along.  I stared into the first page while the banker ruffled through paperwork and tapped into her keyboard.

“Hangul is based on the shape your mouth makes,” the book said.  Yeah right, I thought.  I stared into the pages for a while.  All of a sudden it made sense.  Everything clicked.  I began sounding out signs in the bank, and the banker was delighted to help me with my pronunciation.  “You are so cute,” she told me as I sounded out words with all the speed of a handicapped snail.

I walked out of the bank and up the street.  Every sign I walked past I read slowly aloud.  I probably sounded like a child, but it was delightful.  I was literate.  Sure, I didn’t know what most of it meant.  But every once in a while I’d find a Korean word like “dee gee tul,” and realize it was Konglish for ‘digital.’  Literacy was a sweet reward.

I found, after reading for a while, that I’d become a much more understanding teacher.  Korean language has 14 consonants.  They are B, Ch, D, G, H, J, K, M, N, Ng, P, R/L, S, T.  This helped me immensely with the hangman mysteries.  The ‘V’ and ‘Z’ were peculiar to the students because they didn’t have them in their language.  Plus, by this point I was a master of knowing what letters were meant when students said “g” or “jeduh” (also z… imitating ‘zed’ I believe).

The riel (r/l) looks a bit like a backwards S.  It sounds like a L with a little bit of an R.  Now that I was struggling to make the riel sound, I was so much more forgiving of the student’s reversal of ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds.  It made me want to go back in time and slap myself for the ‘fa rararara’ business.

This didn’t mean I stopped finding all mistakes hilarious.

K-Pop is heavy in the air if you walk through any downtown area of South Korea.  Lee Hyori came out with a catchy song full of Korean verses, and a chorus in English, which was typical.  However, in this particular song, they repeated, “girl, girl, hey you go girl!”  When the men sang, it came out as “you go girr!”  And the women sang, “you go gil!”  Nobody combined the “r” with the “l.”

Yes, the Engrish was funny, but I also felt sympathetic while I laughed inside my head.

I started taking a belly dance class at my gym.  There was a class offered for foreigners, so each Tuesday and Thursday five of us showed up to get our wiggle on.  Our teacher, Sojung, was an absolutely beautiful Korean woman who dressed in flowing and colorful skirts paired with matching fancy padded bras.  Her English was mostly good, but she still made mistakes.

“Right, push, left, push,” she would tell us as she led us in hip and ribcage contortions.  Since ‘push’ ends with a consonant, it was natural to add a vowel sound to the end of it.  In Korean, the “sh” sound is rare.  But when Sojung added the long ‘E’ sound to ‘push,’ she also dropped the ‘h’.  This made these instructions usually come out sounding like, “right, pussy, reft, pussy.”  It killed me.

Another difficult English concept was the letter ‘f.’  “Why didn’t you do your homework,” I often asked my students.

“I porgot!” they would reply.

Other students, showing off, would say, “I pinished mine!”

My friend Claire had a school director who, like most directors, spoke imperfect English.  One day she was riding with her director.  He pointed to a restaurant’s parking lot and said, “My wife and I, when we go eat there, we fack over here.”  Claire looked at him, surprised at this confession.

“You… what?” she asked.

“We fack here.  Good facking spot.”

It took a minute, but she realized he’d had switched the p in parking for an f, and also had dropped the r.  parking… facking.

This joke became a favorite for us foreigners.  I mean, who doesn’t like to find a good facking spot?

(written in 2010)

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