Sang Sang has big ears and wears huge Woody Allen glasses. His head is thin, his hair is short, and he laughs every time he speaks English. I’m not sure why, but I generally laugh when he speaks English too. Sang Sang is one of the best English speakers at the school and yet it’s an adventure when we try to have a conversation. Typically, we’re both baffled by what he’s saying. Unlike other Korean high school students, though, Sang Sang isn’t embarrassed into silence due his (can we say) developing English ability. He’s amused by it, the same way I might be if you dressed me up in pads and skates and threw me out into the middle of an ice hockey rink.
I know that when Sang Sang cracks up, he’s really just trying to tell me, “Listen, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now. Enjoy it for what it’s worth.”
My most memorable conversation with Sang Sang happened during the English Interview Contest my school had me do about a month ago. In a nutshell, students signed up to come into a classroom and have me interview them. After doing the interviews, I would pick a winner. It sounded easy enough, especially because my superior, Peter Teacher, gave me a brilliant list of questions to use. It contained such gems as:
“Do you enjoy reading?”
“What is your favorite book?”
“What was your favorite part of the book?”
In dealing with the brilliant but inflexible Peter Teacher, I’ve learned not to question anything. If he wanted me to ask them these questions, that’s what I would do. On the day of the contest about fifteen kids showed up, all giggling nervously. One by one they came into the classroom and I gave them the 3rd degree about their favorite books. Most stumbled through descriptions of The Alchemist, grabbing their faces in frustration every now and again when they fell into a pit of indecipherable babble. The agony showed on them like they were players on a football team that had just lost its fourth straight Superbowl (Go Bills!!!). Somehow their second language had failed them and they blew it. Peter Teacher glared at them sternly. For my part, I was very nice.
“Oh,” I’d say, trying to help, “that sounds interesting. Do you like colors? What’s your favorite? Blue?”
It was with a sigh of relief that I greeted Sang Sang, sitting down for his interview, a big goofy smile already on his face. He talked about reading and his favorite book. I don’t remember the name, nor do I remember in detail what his favorite part was, but it had something to do with racism. The book was set in the US, and in the scene, a black man asked a white family for directions and was ignored simply because he was black.
“Why was that your favorite part, Sang Sang?” I asked earnestly. The other students liked the action scenes, or the parts with the greatest drama. Why on earth did Sang Sang like a scene in which a white family gave a black dude the Danny Glover taxi treatment?
“Because I like black people,” he said.
This was interesting. Odd, yes, but interesting. There are very few black people in South Korea – most are soldiers, either from the US or Ghana. Koreans typically know nothing about black people other than that they exist, in places other than Korea. Two years ago, during my first stint in Korea, I asked my class to name as many black people as they could. Here was their list:
George Washington Carver
It’s insane to me that George Washington Carver, of all people, is known across the Pacific. This is even more interesting when you take into account the fact that Koreans don’t really like peanuts and peanut butter at Homeplus is incredibly overpriced. (In time, the students would reveal that they knew more than those four – their minds must’ve gone blank when put on the spot.)
Anyways, I digress. Back to the interview. Despite the ominous presence of Peter Teacher, I broke from the script. “Sang Sang,” I said, “have you ever met a black person?”
Sang Sang lit up. It was like a parent talking about a child or a film director talking about his next movie. “Yes!” he said excitedly. “Last year we had a field trip to Itaewon and I talked to a black man!”
Itaewon is the area of Seoul where the US troops are stationed. “On the street?” I asked Sang Sang. “Where did you talk to him?”
“He was in a room,” Sang Sang said. “The school wanted us to meet a black person, so we had a field trip to Itaewon. We were all able to talk to him and ask questions.”
I really wanted to know more about this. Who was this black man – was he someone important? Sang Sang didn’t think so. He was just a regular guy. I was dumbfounded. Had Mansu High School really conducted a field trip to Itaewon – a good two hours from the school – for the sole purpose of having the students talk to a random black person? I wondered how they approached the dude with the idea for the field trip:
“Say, our students only know who four black people are, and two of them are dead. If you’re not busy this week, would you mind sitting in a room and having fifty Korean boys stare at you?”
How many students did they really take on this trip? Did they need permission slips?
“Sang Sang,” I said, “is that the only time you’ve ever spoken to a black person?”
“Yes!” he said, nodding his head enthusiastically. “I will never forget it. It was a great experience!”
Koreans must spend a staggering amount of time talking to other Koreans. Here was a high school full of boys who can’t sustain a simple English conversation even though they’ve taken English class for the last 10 years of their lives and many of them go to hokwons (private tutoring centers) to study English outside of school. But the English classes in public schools are taught by Korean teachers, and hokwons are expensive. For my students, English is still a very Korean thing.
I tried to picture, in my head, what the bus must have been like the morning of The Black Man Field Trip. Were the students excited or were the scared? Nervous. Was the bus filled with talking or silence? I wondered if the students realized that this was the first and maybe last time they would ever talk to a black person. What went through their minds (in Korean, of course, not English)? Did they wonder how different he’d be, or did they wonder how much he’d be like them?