Every Friday morning, five Korean women in their forties would scamper up to the English Zone located on the second floor of my High School specifically to see me. For the next hour, we would have our “English Lesson,” which mostly consisted of them asking me questions about my sex life and me trying to answer them in English, making sure they could understand what I was saying and that I didn’t come off looking like a scumbag. Four of the women had sons that went to my school; the other one came because she lived in the area. Our “Parent Class” was not, by any means, something unique to my school. All foreign public school teachers, to my knowledge, have a class on their schedule for the parents of their students.
The content of those classes, I’m sure, varies greatly depending on the teacher.
At first, I tried to run Parent Class like I would run any other class. I came prepared with low-level articles to read, vocabulary words, and grammar exercises. These were shot down immediately.
“This is very boring,” said Jennifer, an English teacher herself. “We would rather do open discussion.”
“Okay, that sounds great,” I said, trying not to look a little offended that my lesson had been poo-pooed before we even
started it. “What would you like to discuss?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, not really.”
“What do you mean – not really?”
“Well, I’m sort of spending time with someone…”
And with that, the general tenor of our class was set. I’m way too much of an open book, so for an hour every Friday I would end up getting advice about my love life from five Korean mothers. There was even a time when I had gone on a couple dates (I think they were dates…dinner was involved…let’s just call them dates for the sake of simplicity) with a girl who was fluent in Korean, and I had the mothers from Parent Class send her texts from my phone in Korean, pretending to be me.
“What did you say to her?” I asked the delighted group.
“Oh, we said very nice things,” Awn-nee replied (‘Awn-nee’ means ‘big sister’ in Korean; as I had too much trouble remembering Awn-nee’s actual name, this is what I called her). Then the girl texted back – in Korean – and the five mothers clapped and broke into laughter. They told me her response was very encouraging.
“Awn-nee’s got game,” I thought. “She’s doing much better than I usually do.”
Other times the parents talked about themselves. They talked about their husbands. Only one of them would openly say that she was still ‘in love’ with her husband. Her name was Deborah. She had gone to Jeju Island recently with her friends and was trying to tell the group about it. Actually, she had already told the group about it in Korean, and was struggling to translate her description into English. She took out her cell phone and typed something into the dictionary/translator feature. With a smile on her face, she showed me the word that had come up on the screen:
“Rape?” I said, alarmed. All of the others nodded and smiled. “What do you mean rape?”
This was not good. What had happened to Deborah in Jeju, and why was she so happy about it? Was she coming forward, now, in Parent Class? Maybe she could only come forward in English. I would have to alert the police! This was a nightmare!
“Very beautiful,” she said. I turned to Jennifer, because Jennifer was basically fluent. “What’s she talking about?” I asked.
“She’s talking about the flowers that grow on the island,” Jennifer told me. “What did you think? Oh, did you think…”
And then Jennifer started laughing at me.
Apparently – who knew! – there is a breed of flower called “rape flowers” (“rape” is Latin for “turnip”). They grow in China and Korea and I’m sure they grow in other places too. The next week, Deborah brought in a zip drive with pictures from her trip. She put them up on the smart board in the classroom. Beautiful yellow flowers filled the screen, the sun shining down on them.
“Here are rape flowers,” she said. “So pretty.”
She was right – they were pretty. Horribly named, but pretty.
Those flowers needed to be re-named, stat. I wondered what Deborah’s actual name was. I didn’t know. All I knew was that she was kind and drank wine at night and had a husband that she loved.
Then I thought about the names of the other people around me. Jennifer. Awn-nee. The students with their silly made up names like “Cornchip” and “Bon Jovi.” Later, at the academy, the students would re-name me “Kim Ho Jin.” Names have meaning, and are at the same time completely meaningless. They’re all about connections, connotations. What sounds alarming to one person signifies a field a golden flowers to another.
I had one student who chose to name himself “Mexicana.” I asked him why he wanted to be called ‘Mexican.’ That’s not what it meant, he said. I asked him what it meant. He told me he picked it because it was the name of a chicken restaurant in Korea, and he liked the chicken there.