The College Students
Yeah man, they really are as great as you think. There’s no more screaming, no more dong-chimming, and very little in the way of running around and hitting. I’ve taught five classes so far this week at my Korean university, and each was actually a pleasant relief from the rest of the things going on in my life. If you can believe it, when I left those classrooms I felt better than when I first stepped inside.
The first week is all about introductions. I projected pictures I’d taken of my wife, my son, Maine, Turkey, and New York City. I explained them a little and then told my students to ask me questions, giving a participation point each time a student raised a hand (noting their points down beside their names), since they apparently won’t speak unless they’re sure of being rewarded for it. I was invariably asked my age, how I met my wife, my favorite Korean food, and where I lived; I replied with the same jokes in each class, and got the same laughs each time. Maybe it was the legacy of the Puritans or simple shyness—which I try and often fail to conceal by pretending to be outgoing—but I felt a little guilty for focusing the spotlight on myself for so long, and even as I smiled and laughed and told the same jokes and stories again and again as though I’d never told them before I was inwardly wincing at my reliance on repetition.
After these introductions the students spoke English among themselves, and since most of my classes had odd numbers of students I was forced to join in the fray. Although some of the conversations can be extraordinarily predictable, and although my understanding of Korean exceeds the English comprehension of some of my students, I’m still usually interested to hear about where everyone is from, and I’m even more curious when I discover that they’ve studied abroad: one lucky girl got to spend six months in New York City, while another was in Australia for three years!, and spoke English with a very distinct accent. She’d wanted to come back to Korea the whole time she was there, and now that she was back in Korea she wanted to return to Australia. That’s how it goes. Her English was too good for my class.
When it comes to showing off my own Korean language skills, I usually demand that my students quiz me: say a word in Korean and I’ll translate it into English. This can save time later as they ask me the meaning of a word rather than taking a minute to look it up on their phones. They invariably give me easy words. Gabang. Yeoja chingu. I demand more difficult ones, and translate nuclear power, engineering, and business administration, which are three of the many majors offered by my most estimable university. Only one student managed to defeat me when he used a strange word for ceiling light that I’ve forgotten and that I’d never heard before (it wasn’t 불 and it wasn’t 빛); back when I was teaching writing classes I fantasized about lecturing the students entirely in Korean. They always gasp with surprise when I write the word for logical, 논리적인, on the board, which is a positive thing and a negative thing at the same time: positive because this country is so international in its outlook that it doesn’t expect other people to learn its language (really), and negative because so many people come here without putting in the effort to read and write what must surely be the easiest alphabet ever conceived. I would have liked to project a picture of Mr. Spock while explaining the importance of asking logical and not random questions to my students, but nobody here knows anything about Star Trek (a postcolonial multicultural fantasy is not that appealing to a homogenous culture whose modern history begins with forty years of colonization), so it’s likely that a picture of a space gremlin would only further confuse them. I did show him to some elementary school students once and they liked doing the Vulcan hand thing, which is actually a Jewish hand thing.
I’ve got one more class this week, and then I’m done. The process of speaking in public is surprisingly similar to the process of writing: at times I’m so comfortable with it, and my thoughts flow so easily—originating in that magical core of conception somewhere in my brain and then flying out through my mouth—that thirty minutes can pass in a heartbeat, just as they do when I’m really inspired, and burning through page after page of writing. It’s not unlike playing music. Even though I’m a mediocre guitar player at best, I still practice now and then, and can still pluck a few pleasant West African tunes from those strings, and when I really get into it I’m no longer there: time and self both vanish when speaking or writing or playing songs, and nothing remains but the act of creation.