The Vice Principal at my former school was an older man, in his fifties, with grey hair and glasses, a pleasant smile and a good parking space. I hope that when I get to be an old man, I can develop a sweet old guy smile that tells people I’m nice and not watching teen porn in my basement. More importantly, I hope to have a decent parking spot wherever I work. It would be miserable having to drag my elderly bones all the way across the Walmart parking lot, through the snow and the rain. I’d probably have a heart attack eventually. With that in mind, when I’m 70 and applying for the Door Greeter job at Walmart, to ensure my safety I’ll have to pay the cart boy to take CPR training.
It could be part of the job requirements: bringing carts in, helping customers, occasionally performing chest compressions on the Door Greeter.
Anyways, Vice Principal (people in Korea often refer to each other by job title and rarely by name), had a daughter who was overseas studying English in the USA.
“That’s cool,” I said. “Whereabouts in the US is she?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Oh…like, I mean, which state is she in?”
He shrugged. He knew she was in the US, and that was good enough. Further information wasn’t necessary – it’s not like it’s a big country or anything. Vice Principal barely spoke English and, maybe because teaching me his native tongue was going to be the only way we’d ever have a conversation, decided that he was going to be my Korean professor. Every day he’d call me to his desk and, for about an hour, we would go over Korean. He’d give me homework and bought me a CD to practice with. Not before long, though, things started getting out of hand.
“Today, numbers,” he said. We went over the numbers 1-10 in both Korean counting systems (sort of like cardinal and ordinal). I lumbered through it, needing hints several times. Vice Principal thought it best to go further. He moved on into the teens.
“It is very easy,” he said.
Trying to say the teen words, I was very conscious that I could barely remember 1-10. Still, I tried. Vice Principal was apparently satisfied, because he kept going on, further. 20, 30, 40, 50. 100. 150. 1,000. By the time he was attempting to teach me 1,000,000, smoke was coming out of my ears.
“Dude, I’m lost,” I said. “Can we concentrate on the 1-10?”
He looked angry. “This is very easy! Practice. Say 167,392 in Korean.”
It was useless. Our Korean lessons fell apart soon after. I stopped doing my homework and Vice Principal would stand by my desk and shake his head, muttering, “Bad student” like an angry parent. I was ashamed, and would’ve accepted it had he disciplined me in normal parental fashion by not letting me watch TV or paddling me with a hairbrush.
Learning a second language is hard. That’s obvious. It’s even harder when you’re in your mid-30s and have no background in whatever language you’re trying to pick up. People seem shocked every time I reveal that I’ve been in Korea for over two years and still speak a very minimal amount of Hangul-mal. The lack of language expertise has been more apparent this second year. My first year, I was kind of stuck in the expat bubble, speaking and spending time with other foreigners and not particularly concerned about anything. Now, things are different. I’ve drifted from the expat community, see only Koreans daily, and have a Korean girlfriend who has Korean parents I will one day have to meet. And talk to.
I feel they would not be impressed if I can’t, I don’t know, count past six.
There have been moments of effort, I guess. I signed up for language exchange. But then my partner quit before we met. Then I tried to sign up for lessons at a real University. They responded to one email and lost interest in me after that. It was failure, abject failure. I tried to have my girlfriend and my students teach me sentences. My girlfriend taught me to say “I like puppies,” and my students taught me to say “I am a rabbit.” So at least I have the vital survival phrases down.
I envy my students. Learning English at such a young age, they are allowed to butcher it, to take forever, to be confused, to say whacky things. In fact, I prefer that. I’m not in teaching for the money; I’m in it for the comedy. Like the one time we were doing the ‘My Family’ unit, and students were supposed to say sentences in this style: She is my mother’s mother; she is my grandmother. I called on one goofy kid, and he confidently blurted out, “He is my mother’s father; he is my girlfriend.”
I loved it. Another time, in the high school, there was a kid who didn’t speak any English at all. They had to talk about their hobbies, and the students were giggling. The boys around this particular student had ‘taught’ him what to say.
“What is your hobby?” I asked, speaking slowly.
“Masturbation,” he said.
“Great,” I said, being encouraging. “Let’s not say that, though. What do you do when you’re not masturbating?”
“Umm…play computer games.”
“Hmm,” I said. “I know many, many people just like you.”
Moments like that are fun and make the classroom better. This past week, I was playing Scrabble with a kid. He had his letters turned so I couldn’t see them. He looked at the board and nodded, knowing what word to make. He placed the letters down.
“Oh no,” I thought. “Is he going to spell ‘jizz?’ How does he even know that?”
He completed his word with U-S. A big smile crossed his face. “Jesus!” he proclaimed.
Jesus. Jizus. Close enough. It was funny. That’s the benefit to learning a second language young, I think. Fucking up is cute and humorous. At my age, it isn’t. At lunch with my current boss (who speaks minimal English) and a bi-lingual teacher, I was asked to say something in Korean.
“Kangagee choa hey-o,” I stated, resorting to my standard line of ‘I like puppies.’
She looked confused. “Is ‘Kangagee’ you girlfriend?” she asked. My pronunciation was bad and she didn’t understand. The bilingual teacher had to explain that I was trying to say that I like puppies. It was sad and awkward and my face got red like the Koreans when they drink too much. My boss eventually got it and just sort of nodded and said, “Oh, okay.” I felt like a mentally challenged boy.
Living in another country, language acquisition is sort of like being potty trained. Peeing in the diaper is okay for awhile, but I’ve lived in Korea for two years and it’s time I learned to use the toilet. I remember when Vice Principal was giving me lessons and teaching me to read Korean letters. He spelled out something and watched me, impatiently as he usually was, as I took a long time to sound it out. I finally read it and he got excited.
“Cool,” I said. “What does it mean?”
“It is my name,” he said, the pleasant smile on his face. “You can call me that.”