I was explaining the difference between ‘circle’ and ‘circular’ to one of my
more advanced elementary school classes when James looked at me and earnestly asked, “Teacher, what is fucking?” I was caught off guard, and thought maybe he’d said a Korean word that happened to sound like an English swear. I was hoping that was it.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“What is fucking?” He repeated.
Before I could think of a response, Jake smiled like a twerp and said, “Shit fuck shit fuck shit fuck.”
I was a little horrified with the turn that my class had taken. My coworker, Eun Joe had told me previously that students do hear those words and it’s important to know what they mean. I hadn’t ever thought to bring it up with a class. I really hadn’t wanted to broach that topic. “Well,” I started quietly. “It means shibal.”
The class gasped. I think they were pleased though, to understand the translation of word they’d all heard before.
“Teacher, do you know gay secki?” Sally asked. She was giggling.
“I don’t think so… is it a bad word?”
“It means ‘dog baby!’”
“Dog baby? You mean, like puppy?”
“Shit fuck shit fuck shit fuck,” Jake repeated.
Luckily, Korean life is based on respect. It is respectful in Korea to use two hands when giving something to elders. All my students would use two hands when turning their papers in me. Many students also would slightly bow when they’d pass me in the hallway. And nearly every word Koreans say has a polite version and a familiar version. “Those words are impolite. They are rude,” I explained to my suddenly foul-mouthed students. This, I hoped, would deter them from cursing in English, as fun as it may feel.
As the kids walked out of my classroom, I found myself smiling at the unusual conversation. Not so much that it happened, but I was more amused with the thoughts I’d had when I saw these children cursing. That damn television. Those stupid American movies and music. Why do kids have to learn swears? I was feeling slightly bitter and officially adult.
The next week, when James came into my class, he pointed to a boy sitting across the aisle from him. “Teacher, Joe is fucking me,” he said.
I tried not to look startled. I assumed that Joe had flipped up his middle finger, but I didn’t want to explain the meaning of what he had said. So I told him, “James, that doesn’t even make sense.” Sometimes translations get a little too messy.
(written in 2010)