When I was a substitute teacher in Sacramento, kids’ comments regularly induced death by laughter.
Student: Mr. S! How old are you?
Ian: I’m 25.
Student: Whoa! My mom is older than you, but she’s also shorter than you!
Now that I get to interact with students in a brand new cultural context with a significant language barrier, the results are even more fun. These are the more humorous and/or linguistically memorable comments I have heard.
Ian walks around the class while students look at articles in preparation for an expository essay.
Student: Ian. I do not understand because I am so stupid.
Ian: No… You’re not stupid. You’re doing fine.
Student: Yes. That’s right. I am a genius.
There is little gray area when it comes to my students’ praise or criticism. To be fair, much of that may be the language barrier. I really need to teach a lesson about qualifiers.
Ian walks around his after-school writing class while students work on an expository essay outline.
Student: Teacher! What do you think of this sentence?
Ian reads the sentence. The grammar is impeccable. He smiles.
Ian: This is really good.
Student: I know.
Ian: Then why did you ask me?
I can relate to this. I used to be a smartass know-it-all (In some ways I still am). When I was in high school I only raised my hand to share what I knew so the teacher would validate how awesome I was. The fixed mindset was strong back then. Today I do this in the form of blog posts.
Ian stands in front of the class. It is the top of the hour. He is about to quiet the class to attention when-
Student: Teacher. What did you do this weekend?
Ian: I went to see my friends in Mokpo. We went to a street festival. What about you?
Student: Me too! I got drunk and smoked weed.
Ian: Yeah…sit down, please.
To be fair, I don’t think he was serious. Rather, he’s a serious hip-hop head who is kind as candy but asks enough questions to drive me insane.
“Teacher do you know Eminem?”
“Teacher do you know Biggie?”
“Teacher do you know ASAP Rocky?”
“Yes,” I say fighting to suppress my exasperation.
Ian passes two students in the hallway during passing period.
Student 1: Teacher! Hello! I love you!
Ian: Good morning!
Student 2: Oh, Teacher! Nice to meet you!
Ian: Yeah. You’re in my class. We’ve met before.
Student 2: Okay! Bye Bye!
I blame myself here. I lacked linguistic understanding.
For some reason, Koreans use the phrase “I love you” in a far broader context than most Americans. I’ve heard stories of people calling Korean customer service in Korea only to be greeted with “Thank you for calling [company]. I love you.”
In terms of “nice to meet you,” I hypothesize that it involves translating the Korean verb 만나다 (man-na-da, to meet). In my English idiolect, I think of the verb “to meet” as a first-time encounter (“I met him at a party.”) while the phrase “meet up” can imply familiarity (“I met up with him at a party”). In Korean, the verb 만나다 seems to correspond with the latter kind of encounter. Therefore, I think they know we’ve met before. I mistakenly interpret the utterance as implying a first-time encounter. The language barrier strikes again.
Students work on a journal entry during an after-school class.
Student: Teacher, I don’t want to write this. I want to sleep.
Ian: Class is over in 15 minutes. Just do your best.
Student: Nuh-mu-hae (You’re so mean).
Ian shapes his fingers as downward “T’s” to represent tears.
Ian: T-T (sad)!
I love employing a little Korean slang (even if it’s outdated) just to catch my students off-guard. They appreciate my (lame) attempts to “get down and hip with what the kids are saying these days.” Cringe.
Hip-Hop approaches Ian’s desk, a sad look on his face.
Hip-Hop: Teacher. The 60 bus. I saw you on the bus. I waved, but you didn’t say “hello”.
Ian: Oh. I probably had headphones in. You should have tapped me on the shoulder. I would have said “hi.”
Hip-Hop: No. You looked angry.
Ian: I probably wasn’t angry.
Hip-Hop: Yeah, but you looked angry.
In his defense, I can see how my off-guard surprise face could be misinterpreted as anger. I wouldn’t have approached me either.
Students read through online articles to prepare for an expository essay.
Student 1: Teacher. What is this?
She points to a term: premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
Ian: Oh. That’s when young women feel sad once a month and…
Student 2: Okay, okay, okay, we get it.
Student 1: You are a bad man. Not Batman.
My fault. I should have read those articles more thoroughly. However, I thought the Batman jab was a low blow. It still bothers me to this day.
Ian takes attendance at an after-school class.
Ian: Where is Yoo-Jin (pseudonym)?
Student: Yoo-Jin? You mean the first-grader?
Student: We don’t know. We’re second-graders. We don’t care about them.
Damn. Tell me how you really feel. When I was a junior in high school I certainly cared about some sophomores. Especially if they were female and attractive (I was 17 at the time. You were a teenager once too. Don’t throw stones.)
Ian wraps up a lesson about the present perfect.
Ian: I have been in Korea for three months and this class has been my favorite.
Student 1: That’s because I am in this class.
Ian (sarcastically): She is so modest and humble.
Student 2: What does that mean?
Student 1: It means I am a pretty girl!
You know what? Respect. You took the language barrier in stride and interpreted it in your favor. That inspires me to learn the Korean translation for “I’m awesome.”
Ian approaches the ticket window at Mokpo Bus Terminal
Ticket Clerk (in Korean): The next bus leaves for Gwangju in 30 minutes.
Ian (in Korean): I don’t know, but I’m awesome.
Bus Terminal Clerk (in Korean): That will be 7,500 won.
Ian (in Korean): I don’t know, but I’m awesome.
Interacting with my students is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Every day I encounter smiles, waves, linguistic mini-lessons, new Korean slang, outdated Korean slang, and plenty of memorable moments. It always leaves me waking up saying, “I wonder what they will say next.”
For some reason, my hair grows at double-speed here. Time for another haircut.
This place had some good sam-gyup-sal and even better ban-chan (I have a special relationship with ban-chan).
And just like that, I need another haircut.
Thank you to Shane Sweet for convincing me to practice Korean with him in front of everyone at orientation. They gave me this folder that I now use every day.
Shout out to my English Department head. She is the sweetest in complimenting my class.