Melissa and I are
awakened by three generations of Koreans noisily constructing a
space age-looking tent just centimeters from our toes. It's your
typical purple dome-tent, but designed for use at the beach, with
big open sidings. As the adults go to work, yelling instructions at
each other, their children race around in circles, shrieking.
Melissa looks at me and groans, rolls her eyes. I lift my head and
cast scathing glances at the children, intending to turn them to
stone with my glare and in this way shut them up. It doesn't
After two years in Pusan,
Melissa and I should know better than to expect a quiet Sunday at
the beach. Nevertheless, we're American and some things are
ingrained - we can't help but feel annoyed by intrusions.
The amount of noise pollution one
family can produce at the beach when you're trying to sleep is
remarkable. Still, it's not quite as impressive as that of a single
man carrying a large megaphone. I sit up on my elbows to watch him
as he marches resolutely toward us, and though he isn't carrying
anything else in his hands, I suspect he's a salesman. When he
pauses in front of us, between our feet and the tent project, my
suspicion is confirmed. His megaphone turns bilingual.
"Believe in Jesus and you
will be saved, you and your household," he instructs twice, speaking
directly to our bikini-covered chests, before moving down the beach.
Out of a good fifty thousand people on Haeundae Beach today, Melissa
and I are unquestionably exposing the most skin. It's clear we could
use some salvation.
The tent is finally upright,
conveniently positioned between us and what was moments ago our
unobstructed view of the sea. One grandmother and four middle-aged
women - ajumas, they're called in Korea - huddle inside it now, each
claiming for herself one tiny square of precious shade. None of them
wears a bathing suit. In fact, each is dressed for a cool autumn
day, in long-sleeved shirts and pants. It's late July, in the upper
nineties today. The ajumas chat and laugh in high-pitched, sing-song
voices, occasionally sneaking peaks at us over their shoulders. It's
too hot to be in a conciliatory mood today. Plus, I'm hung over, I
have a huge blister on my right heel from dancing last night, and my
chin is breaking out. I'm almost thirty, too old for a pimply chin.
So, I stare right back.
The men in the family have
gone off to frolic, also fully clothed, in the water. Outside the
tent, a young boy of about ten whines half-heartedly as his mother
covers him in sunscreen, polishing his skin as if he were the dining
room table. He squirms and protests, but the bulk of his attention
is directed toward us. He gapes at our skin, so pale, so freckled,
and so much of it, right here in front of him. He can't take his
eyes off us, nor can he shut his mouth, which has dropped open in
We're accustomed to this
attention, more or less. About an hour ago, a young man approached
and thrust a camera in Melissa's face.
"Excuse me. Picture," he
She nodded, sat up and reached for
the camera obligingly. He didn't give it to her. Instead, he handed
it to his friend and knelt beside Melissa on the sand, posing like
they were pals from way back. I leaned out of the camera's way, and
no one objected. He clearly didn't need me in the photo - I'm a
Yes, we're accustomed to
this. A spectacle even with clothes on, we're the token Westerners
in our neighborhood, observed at all times and from every angle. On
the narrow, winding street that leads to our house, children throw
their heads out of bus windows to scream blood-curdling hellos at
us. Teenagers loitering outside video arcades in their blue school
uniforms stop talking when we pass and mechanically recite, "Welcome
We are foreigners -
essentially, celebrities - and as such, we've forfeited our privacy,
our secrets. Everyone knows us. The most that we know about Mr.
Shim, the sweet old laundry man on the corner, is that he's Mr.
Shim, the sweet old laundry man on the corner. Mr. Shim, however,
knows when we've been smoking, when we've sweat profusely or spilled
food on ourselves, when we've menstruated. Mr. Park, the grocer
across the street with the gold tooth and the fishing hat, couldn't
remember our names if his life were at stake. But he could tell you
exactly how much beer and cheap soju we drink during the average
weekend. Mrs. Lee, our landlady, has discovered men leaving in the
morning, and once telephoned the director of our private English
institute to complain about it. I believe she keeps better track of
the men in our lives than we do. Our Tae Kwon Do instructor has seen
us listless, lying on the floor mat groaning like invalids. He's
also witnessed us ferocious, begging for something to punch or kick.
He knows our temperament, our strength, better than we do. The video
store ajuma keeps a record in her mind of precisely how many times
we've rented Pretty Woman. She shows us on her fingers each time we
bring it guiltily to the counter.
We live in fear that these
people talk to each other. That collectively, they've got the goods
on us. No matter how long we live here, we will remain oddities,
sources of unending curiosity. In bars and on elevators, we're poked
and prodded like lab specimens. We've gotten felt up in buses and
subways, and had our arm hair combed by inquisitive old ladies.
We've been compared to monkeys, and told that we smell like
In our classes, as well, we're
awarded special attention and denied the basic right to privacy. Our
students often take no interest in grammar or vocabulary. Instead,
they're there to find out whether or not we've tried marijuana, or
ever had sex. They want to know how many guns we own, if we've seen
Leonardo DiCaprio in person, if we can use chopsticks, and if we
have a swimming pool in our backyard at home.
And while they don't possess
the intimate knowledge of our vices that the neighborhood merchants
do, it's undoubtedly our students who know us best in this city.
This is because we're no longer an enigma to them. They see us five
days a week and, unlike our voyeuristic neighbors, are concerned now
with more than the specific tangibles of what we drink, smoke and
bring home at night. They want to know instead how we feel about
drinking, why we smoke, and what type of man we'd like to bring home
the rest of our nights. From this information they've come to know
us, and not merely the habits for which, in our neighborhood each
day, we're identified.
Often, the difference between
knowing and understanding someone is acquiring the ability to
interpret not their actions, but their reactions. Our students have
learned to recognize what angers us, hurts our feelings, touches us,
makes us laugh. My seven-year old student, who has chosen for
himself the nickname "Batman," knows that regardless of how stern my
admonitions may sound, it's physically impossible for me to keep a
straight face when he asks permission to use the restroom by
standing up beside his desk, holding his fist in front of his
zipper, waving it around and saying,
"Teacher, pssssss ok?"
There's a proverb in Korea, "Do
not even step on a teacher's shadow." Another says, "God, teacher,
father - one body." In Korea, respect for one's educators is a value
instilled at an early age. It's this I think of when I enter a
classroom and see that a young student has located a dry-erase
marker and written "Puck You" in large letters on the white board.
It's at this moment that I realize, with a sharp pain in my heart,
that no matter how much grammar and vocabulary I teach my students,
or how often we practice the correct pronunciations of P and F,
often I'm not here as a teacher, a respected educator. I'm here to
be an American.
Because of this, I've
realized the value of actually doing what I'm paid to do - teaching
my students, rather than merely entertaining them. While it may seem
like an uncomplicated notion, too many American teachers living in
Korea describe themselves as game show hosts. What this says to me
is that they've accepted the easy way out, and worse, that they're
perpetuating the myth that Americans know only one way to teach - by
playing Hangman and Bingo. While I don't deny it's essential to have
fun in the classroom, the fact is that we're here to teach English -
therefore, we should insist that the students allow us to do
And it is only when we have,
that they begin to stop us outside the classroom, bow their heads
low and thank us, or give us big glass jars filled with a hundred
multi-colored origami cranes that they've folded themselves, or
bring us exquisite, traditional slippers that their grandmother
sewed for us, or take interest in us as teachers, or stop jumping up
and down on our American shadows.
On the beach, our neighbors seem to have settled nicely into their
new surroundings. The men are burying each other in the sand, while
the women prepare a late afternoon lunch inside the tent. Nearby,
the children systematically build and demolish sand castles. None of
them has gotten any quieter, and Melissa and I are resigned by this
point to staying awake while we sunbathe. We could find a different
spot down the beach, but we're too lazy to move.
The day has only gotten
hotter, and the children have evidently played in the sun too long -
they're becoming increasingly restless. The oldest one, the same boy
who gawked at us earlier, has been torturing his younger siblings
for the past few hours - pinching them and pulling down their
swimming trunks. He's the sort of kid you can take one look at and
know that in school, he hurls erasers at other kid's heads. While
it's unfortunate that he's our beach neighbor for the day, I comfort
myself with the fact that at least he's not my student. Melissa has
already informed me four times today that she's never having
My eyes are closed, so I don't
notice him approaching me, on what is surely the Korean version of a
triple dog dare. All of a sudden, my face and body are covered with
a shower of sand. I sit up, wiping my eyes and mouth, and see him
run screeching back to his brothers and sisters.
"Hey!" I yell, pointing at him, "Hajima!"
All I've said is cut it out. What
I should say is that I'd like to stuff some sand down his stupid,
"That little shit," I say to
"I'm never having children," she
replies, picking sand off her stomach. We've had enough.
We begin to pack up our stuff, shooting indignant looks at the
entire family. While we're shaking our sarongs in their direction,
one of the ajumas from the tent huddle seizes the boy by the arm and
drags him to us. She speaks nervously, her fingernails dug so deeply
into his arm that he'll have a row of parentheses in his skin for
"I am sorry. My son, bad," she
Then she forces him to apologize,
shaking him by the forearm to make the words spill out. His eyes are
lowered, his face terrified. He mumbles an apology in Korean and she
orders him to speak English. When he's done so, she stops shaking
him, but he still trembles.
I know what this means. For days
to come, when he stands up in school to hurl an eraser, he'll wince
in pain when he sits back down. Now I feel bad. I tell her it's ok,
no problem. I pretend my venomous looks were directed at someone
standing just behind their tent.
She asks us, using a mixture of
Korean, broken English and body language, to please join them in
their tent for lunch. I look at Melissa, who shrugs with her
"Itsay upay ootay ouyay," she says
in Pig Latin, a language which, by necessity, we've mastered.
I tell the ajuma no, thanks anyway. She asks again,
please, and I look at the boy. His eyes are brimming with tears,
undoubtedly at the thought of his pending punishment, which will
hurt worse than the fingernails still incising his tender, sunburned
skin. I realize that if we refuse her offer, he may get more than
just a spanking.
The tent is cool, and sizably
larger than it had appeared from the outside. Melissa and I enter a
bit bashfully, hunched low under the canopy, and our heads bob up
and down like yo-yos as we bow to greet each ajuma. We're
immediately ushered to the best slice of shade, right in the center,
and handed two miniature yogurt drinks in plastic bottles. The
ajumas all shift positions, rearranging themselves to accommodate
our entrance into their world, and Melissa and I fold our legs
beneath us, attempting to take up as little space as possible, and
still manage a modicum of comfort. When everyone is settled, there's
a short, semi-uncomfortable silence, then they all speak at once,
the ajumas stumbling over the English they haven't studied since
"Marry?" one of them asks us.
"Anyo, uri neun kyulhone
anhessuyo," I answer - We're single. After another pause, the women
simultaneously explode in laughter, delighted and surprised that we
speak their language.
When we say goodbye to the family
two hours later, we're satiated from kimchi, kimbap, and various
kinds of fruit, and we have a bag of grapes to take home. We've
learned some new Korean words and been taught to peel an apple in
one long strip without breaking it, a skill we've both dreamed of
mastering since Meg Ryan did it in Sleepless in Seattle. We, in
turn, have shown the children how to dribble watery sand over the
turrets and spires in their castles to create a gothic effect,
before helping to demolish them. The ajumas all know that we can use
chopsticks, that we're still searching for our Mr. Rights, and that
we're both from Arizona originally, where yes, Melissa has a pool in
her backyard, but no, I do not. We have an appointment to accompany
the whole family to Dongnae next Sunday, where we'll picnic by a
creek and tour the largest temple in the Pusan area. And I have a
new private job, teaching English to the boy at their home, twice a
week. Their chauffeur will pick me up and drop me off each
We're accustomed to this attention,
more or less. And I doubt we'll ever get used to it.