환민* Hwan Min walked up to my desk in the 교무실 again and plopped down into full 아주마 squat beside my chair, so I knew he would be here a while.
“What are you thinking about, 환민?”
*flashback… 환민 is in love and you should read about it in my last post if you didn’t already*
“Teacher, should I cut my hair?”
“Well…. It doesn’t look that much longer since you cut it, like, two weeks ago…. Does it feel too long?”
환민 mumbles something in way of “sort of”… then continues, “I think the goddess like my short.”
“She likes your hair short…” I corrected (he has asked me to correct any grammar mistakes he makes while speaking). “How do you know that?”
“One time at lunch, she sat next to me. In the….
“Yes. Cafeteria. And once she… her hair like this…” he flipped his imaginary hair like that one blonde douchey prince in Shreck.
“Ahhhh she flipped her hair…” I took out a post it note and wrote on it, “flip your hair.”
“Yes she flipped her hair. And it touched my arm like this.” He lightly brushed his arm in this sort of sensual way that made me uncomfortable so that I started talking really fast to make him stop–
“Okay so her hair brushed against your shoulder or whatever but then what does that have to do with your hair?”
“That was when my hair was short.”
“So let me get this straight. You think that this girl was sitting next to you like, ‘wow 환민 looks good with short hair… I’m just going to flip my hair in his direction….because he has short hair…”
“oh.” He looked at me, suddenly realizing how silly that really was. “Maybe not.”
We laughed, then he said,
“Yesterday I tried to talk with the goddess on the bus, but I failed.”
“We were waiting for the bus and I pulled out my earbuds, but the bus came suddenly so I couldn’t talk to her. I wanted to talk her.”
“talk to her..” I corrected.
“I wanted to talk to her on the bus, but my friend from elementary school was on the bus too, so I had to talk with him. Then, she got off the bus. So I got off the bus and followed her…”
“Oh my god you followed her???”
“Yes. For ten minutes or so. Then I called her name, but my voice was quiet..” (here, he made this gesture sort of like he was choking…) “so at first she did not hear, but then she turned.”
“What did you say?”
“I could not say anything. I could not play her the music because she was walking.”
“Yeah I mean that would be pretty awkward… like ‘hey stop walking home so I can play you this song’…”
“Yes awkward. So my mind just stopped, and I stared at her for ten seconds. Then, I just said, ‘안녕,’ (hello) and she said ‘안녕,’ and walked away. And I went back to the bus stop.”
“Dude. You did it! You did something! Way to go! Oh my god it was just like a drama….” (and I start to get a little excited here)
“You follow her off the bus, and the music starts slow
And it is like you are walking together, but only you know it
Through the light rain, but neither of you has an umbrella
And time goes on
And you call out but your voice is too weak and the moment is almost lost
And the music BUILDS
She turns and you meet eyes, and your mind is just so full of things you want to say…
But you can only 안녕
You are both quiet for a moment
Then with a mighty flip she turns and tosses her glossy black hair
She walks away
And then later, you walk away.
Dude your life is a drama,” I finished.
This whole time he has been staring at me sort of confused, probably only understanding 50% of my excited rapid-fire English, wondering what on earth I was doing.
“Well…. Maybe….” he finally said.
“Well. My imagination. Just my imagination.”
I wrote “imagination” on the same post it note.
And so we communicate the sort of weird things going in in our heads.
*Also on another note about 환민, he has started reading some book by Marquis de Sade, and at one point naver searched and showed me an image from the book…. A 1791 drawing of, essentially, a brothel.
I asked him if he know what a brothel was.
He said no.
I asked him if he know what a prostitute was.
He said no.
Before I could stop him he naver translated “prostitute”
“Ohhhhhhhhhh like ho.”
“Hahah yeah basically. Only the word ‘prostitute’ is a little better–more formal–than ‘ho,’ so you should probably say that instead.”
“Ohhhh so I should use the prostitute….”
And of course I burst into laughter….
“Nonononononono never use a prostitute 환민….. “
He looked confused, “but I thought you said….?”
“Nevermind 환민. Nevermind.”
*name changed for privacy
This is hard to write about, but I need to think this through. I hope I can tell the story fairly. Just like I hope I can react to situations like this more thoughtfully and objectively in the future.
On Monday I walked into class 3-5, one of my all time favorite classes–top third-year students led by this ring of loveable quirky bro friends, with another click of super smart artsie girls. I was going to lead a review session for their finals starting the next day. I set down my book on the table when a student named 대경 (Dae Kyeong)* spoke up,
“Teacher… I don’t like black people.”
My stomach dropped. What did he just say? My mind started racing… how are you doing to deal with this, Mo?
A little background: several weeks earlier this same student called me over during class and showed me his notebook. He had written the “n” word (misspelled, but clear), and he asked me, pretty innocently, what it meant. In a sober tone I rarely use in my classes, I explained that this is a word we can never, never say. “Not in school, but with my friends I will say swear words sometimes, even the “f’ word. But I never, never, ever say that word. It is a word black people can say to black people but non-black people can never say. EVER.”
He looked a little confused, but understood the gist of what I was saying. I asked if he understood and he said he did.
But after I turned away, he called my name again.
“Mo Teacher,” he pointed to the student sitting next to him, “dark skin… he is n******.”
So on Monday I walked up to 대경 Dae Kyeong again, panicking and slowly welling with anger.
“Why do you think that, 대경 Dae Kyeong?” I asked, trying not to let my emotions affect my speech.
What happened next was a blur of 대경 Dae Kyeong and surrounding students saying and writing a list of reasons–stereotypes. I wrote down everything they said immediately after so I wouldn’t forget.
White and black…. Opposites
“Do you know a black person, 대경 Dae Kyeong? Have you talked with a black person before?”
I tried my best to keep my cool and listen and let them get to the end of their thoughts. Finally 대경 Dae Kyeong asked me what I thought of black people. I started by telling him that all those things he had said were stereotypes, 고정관념, that many people in America have too, but that they are not true. I told him I have lots of black friends who are smarter, better people than me.
“Yes–kinder, better people than me.”
“Teacher friend… Woman? Man?”
“Women and men.”
I tried to speak as slowly and clearly as I could, but when I am passionate about something…. I just tried not to get carried away. I sort of lectured him and his friends in 50% English/Korean with these wild and probably confusing hand gestures….
I gave him some examples of American stereotypes of Asian people, and told him how when I came to live in Korea I could see that these stereotypes are not always true. I think I said, “often people are different than you think, but you have to know them. You have to have friends and understand that people are people. I think white and black and asian people are different, but not better or worse. I hope you have a black friend in the future 대경 Dae Kyeong. I hope you can talk to a black person and know what they are really like.”
I didn’t have anything else to say, so I just told them to start studying and walked back to the front of class. I felt nauseous about the way I reacted so emotionally. I am glad I dealt with what he said head on, but I ended up making it all about what I think and feel, rather than trying to talk him through his perceptions.
“That interaction was so important,” I thought, “when he thinks about black people for the rest of his life, maybe that’s the conversation he will think of… and I could have done so much better as his teacher…” It was all I could do to hold it together for the next 45 minutes of class to keep from crying. Which of course, I did in the bathroom immediately after.
This all happened a couple days ago, and since then it is like all these puzzle pieces are swirling around in my head. The picture that they would piece together shows what my students really think about non-Korean people, and how I can push the boundaries of the way they think about and learn from people different from themselves. That’s what I really crave to know: what do they actually, honestly think about people of color, and about me as a white person? And what power do I have (also, as a white person…) to push them toward understanding of others’ situations, and human empathy. There are a lot of pieces I need to put together…
Piece 1: Responsibility: I feel like it is my responsibility as the only non-Korean teacher in my school to talk with my students about race and culture. Whether or whether not I even choose to talk about race and nationality and culture at all in my classes, the way I represent “otherness” holds a lot of power. Very few of my students will go to university. Even fewer than than will ever live abroad; in fact, many will probably never leave Mokpo. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that for many of them, I may be the only foreigner they ever really talk with–when they think about racial and cultural difference, maybe I am the person they will think about. There is a terrifying power and responsibility to that. I feel very ethically bound to respond to this.
Piece 2: Innocence: Ignorant as it was, there is a degree of innocence to what 대경 Dae Kyeong and his friends said. Even if he has no idea what he is saying, I admire that he is curious enough to ask me about race–there is something there. There is also an innocence in the sense that Korea does not have the same history of centuries of racial violence and persecution and hate that many Western nations must own–in fact, to my knowledge, Korea is maybe one of the only nations which has never committed great atrocities against another people group. Sure, Korea has committed what I consider atrocities against her own people (example: the Gwangju Uprising), but when it comes to foreign nations she has always been the occupied (by Japan, China, America), never the occupier to my knowledge. If I am wrong, please correct me on this. Dae Kyeong’s historical context does add an element of innocence to what he says that I could never claim as a white American. Along with the fact that he actually has never talked with a black person before.
Piece 3: Model ETA existential crisis: Maybe one reason Dae Kyeong has never talked with a black person is that, as I found out soon after arriving, my school specifically requested from Fulbright a white, female ETA. When I first found this out I was enraged. I vented to my host mom about the unfairness/ borderline illegality(?) of this, and she agreed with me–she wished our school could have an ETA of color as well. According to friends I have talked with about this, there are no laws in Korea banning discrimination between foreigners based on race. (Again, correct me if I am wrong, but I haven’t been able to find anything.)
So the next question becomes, how on earth can I talk about discrimination against POC in Korea… as a white person? And further, as a white person who checks all the boxes of the ideal foreigner: white, female, American, slender, small face, cheery personality, assumed-to-be-straight, American-enough clothes and earrings and hair, learning Korean. At the same time these are all things that are entirely me, they are also the things that make the ideal foreign teacher. They all form a pretty thick lens through which everyone in my school sees me.
“Teacher, so pretty…”
Even my principal has talked several times in front of me about “우리 Mo Teacher 미인” or something, “our Mo Teacher’s beauty” in a way that makes me really uncomfortable…
Anyone who knows me knows I am the least photogenic person in the world, but my coteacher’s photography club keeps asking me to come and model for them “because I have a Western face.” aka: a small white face.
I have always been aware of that lens, but I have never felt so conscious of the ways it affects my relationships as now. (Sidenote: the fact that I have gone 23 years of my life without having to think about lenses on a daily basis is a huuuuge testament to my white privilege… haha)
But the worst part is that I am guilty of playing into these perceptions in order to fit in. It is always easier to be palatable than not, so I just let myself slide along comfy on the daily playing to the“ideal foreigner” perception. I prefer to be well liked than to challenge my students. I want to feel comfortable here. I don’t want to feel any more of an outsider–any more homesick–than I already am. I feel sad to admit this.
So how can I talk about discrimination against POC as a model ETA? The sad reality is that I am limited by the very things that have led me to thrive in my school. I can’t talk about it like a could if I were a POC myself. That doesn’t mean I have an excuse to despair and do nothing–I am already planning lessons about racial diversity, the Civil Rights Movement, immigration, and more for next semester. But it is a privilege and a limitation I must acknowledge. Maybe I am overthinking the amount of power I have. But I can’t help but take this seriously…
Piece 4: Questions: How is a greater understanding of racial and cultural difference and empathy important in my students’ context? How are they educated about race in their other classes, if at all? What can I share with them that would actually change their view of the world and its people in ways that would actually change the way they interact with the world? How can I put this in their terms, not American terms? How can I avoid imposing some moral agenda, and instead give them tools for thinking for themselves? Are there any resources out there made by other teachers in Korea trying to do similar things? And how the hell can I do this in very, very, very beginner English?
I hope my students are better people for being in my class. I hope they grow more thoughtful and able to connect with and learn from people outside their own race and culture. I feel responsible for them–to do the most I can on my part to lead them though the hard work of thinking for themselves.
If anyone can help me put this puzzle together, lemme know.
I first encountered “the Jimi Hendrix of Korea” 신중현 (Shin Joonghyeon, or “Jackie Shin”), when an album by an artist with whom he often collaborated 김정미 (Kim Joongmi) came up on some “chill Korean” spotify playlist I was listening to on the bus. “햇님.” How would you translate that? “Dear sun”? “Sun Man”? Just “The Sun”? I listened to the song over and over because it was unlike any other Korean music I had ever heard.
I am a little ashamed to admit this, but I don’t like k-pop too much. I mean. I listen to it (because it is ubiquitous and entirely unavoidable; they blast IKON and Dok2 in the dorms at 6:30 in the morning to wake everyone up…). I have my favorite band (WINNER) and my favorite musicians (윤미래 and 오혁), but Korean music hasn’t begun to scrape the surface of how important some other musicians have been to me: John Coltrane, Sufjan Stevens, David Bowie, The Beatles, Nina Simone, The Hollies, Kendrick Lamar, Tune-yards, Sharon Van Etten, Kings of Convenience, The Strokes, Jefferson Airplane, Cat Power, Grimes, even Vampire Weekend and Feist… these artists all have a sway over my heart much deeper than k-pop does, probably mostly because of the language/cultural divide, but also due to the fact that I can’t get over seeing k-pop as this hyper-structured corporate enterprise–a silver machine where money slides in on a conveyer belt, turns into art, and is immediately boiled back into money. I know this is incredibly minimizing and gives little credit it to the many, many talented and brilliant Korean artists out there. But I can’t help thinking this way when I know that, in Korea, to talk about k-pop is to talk about companies: SM, YP, and JYP–three companies who pretty much own all of k-pop. During my long winter break I took half-day Korean classes in Seoul, and many afternoons I would spend hanging out and reading in Kyobo, the biggest bookstore in Korea. One time I read this book all about the history of k-pop: how 트로트 (trot) music developed during the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, artists like Kim Yong Hwan and the Kim Sisters and 이미자 borrowing from foxtrot beats to create a uniquely Korean “pop” style of music. I have always thought when I listen to trot that there is this strange undertone of suffering I hear but can’t quite explain. I read about how SM, YP, and JYP started up and the soft power social and political goals of 한류, “The Korean Wave,” of international recognition of Korean culture starting at the turn of the century and the rise of youtube. I read about contract breaks and corruption charges in chaebol culture, and the harsh k-pop trainee bootcamps needed for groups like BTS to perfect that flawless dance synchronization. All this knowledge combined makes me feel (a) that basically k-pop is everything I hate about the intersection of capitalism and the arts, and (b) serious admiration for artists working to do their thing within that system.
But 김정미’s “햇님 was unlike anything else I had heard before. There is this tenderness and idealism to the song, and the whole album it is on, “NOW,” that I couldn’t get out of my head. The sound was like Grace Slick’s alto voice mixed with solid and memorable guitar riffs mixed with despairing absences of resolution borrowed from jazz and trot… I copied down the lyrics in my journal and translated all the words I didn’t know. I learned the song on guitar and played and sang it again and again to practice my Korean pronunciation. I asked my students if they had ever heard of her. They hadn’t.
Finally, I mentioned this song to my friend Shinhwi 신희 the violinist.
“아~ 칠공팔공 음악이군아~ ohhhh that’s 70’s/80’s music…..”
Historical context: from 1961-1979 South Korea was under a military dictatorship led by 박정희 (Park Jung-Hwi), father of current president 박근혜 (Park Gun-Hye). In 1961 Park Jung-Hwi took power through the “5.16 coup d’etat,” and remained in power until he was assassinated by the head of his military in 1979. Obviously opinions of his leadership are varied (in 전라남도 Jeollanam-do, the province where I live he is universally despised…) but as a general summary: he was a pretty strongly authoritarian figure.
“That music is sort of controversial..” 신희 Shinhwi explained, “he was writing songs against the government. Artists like him were put in jail… I even know one who they said dies in a car accident, but everyone knows the government killed him.*”
I thought about American psychedelic rock in that era, the role that music played in movements still rolling on today. What if that movement would have been stopped?
“How did you even find out about this music?” she asked, “most people don’t know anything about it… you are more Korean than Koreans!” she laughed.
What she said perked my interest, and I started researching more and more about Korean psychedelic rock in the 60’s and 70’s. And that is how I found 신중현 Shin Joonghyeon, who is really the protagonist of this story. Shin Joonghyeon was born in Seoul in 1938, during the Japanese Occupation. His mom died when he was young, and his dad remarried and moved the family all around China and Japan following various business ventures. Shin was first introduced to music on a 78-rpm phonograph player in Shinkyung, Manchuria. When his father died in Japan in the mid-50’s, Shin returned to Seoul to try to make a living. Life in post-war Korea was tough, but he finally found work in a relative’s pharmaceutical company. Hours were long, he barely made enough to eat, and he could only go to school part-time, but by his second year of middle school Shin had earned enough money to buy his first musical instrument–a violin. When he found this classical instrument wasn’t the right fit for him, he swapped it for a guitar, borrowed a chord book, and taught himself to play. He started by learning trot music, but again found that it wasn’t speaking to him. So he turned to foreign music at the US military base.
Shin listened to the American radio station and fell in love with Elvis. He bought copies of a monthly music book supplied to American troops. He discovered jazz and started collecting whatever albums he could find. He started playing for people on the street, until finally someone approached him and asked if he wanted to teach at a guitar music school on Jongno.
Shin agreed and taught at Jongno for a while, but the school turned out to be a scam and he lost most of his money. He did gain many connections, however, and soon after started playing on the US Military Base. Americans on the base fell in love with Shin’s blending of so many genres from beach rock to jazz to Korean folk tunes, and “Jackie Shin’s” career began.
Throughout his career Shin mostly collaborated with different bands and musicians–ADD4, The Pearl Sisters, the Yupjins, Golden Grapes, 김정미 of course, and many more. In the 60’s, Shin’s style developed into the psychedelic 가요 (ga-yo) pop genre that makes up what Shinhwi called “칠공팔공, 70/80” music today.
In 1972, Shin received an unexpected call from the Blue House, the Korean presidential mansion, asking that the artist write a song in praise of President Park Jung-Hwi. “I immediately declined the offer,” Shin said. Five minutes later they called again asking him to write a song in praise of the ruling Republican party, and again he declined. Instead of writing a song in praise of the military dictatorship, Shin wrote my personal favorite of his albums–an album praising the natural beauty of the land of Korea–”아름다운 강산,” “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains.”
“The reason why I said Korea is so beautiful was to deliver this message: ‘why do you need dictatorship when Korean people are so beautiful?’”
Shin’s sentiment, however, fell on deaf ears. Under the leadership of the President-appointed Entertainment Mediator Adjuster, whose job it was to monitor Korean music and culture, Shin’s songs were almost instantly banned, and he became a persona non grata in the Korean music industry. Worse still, in 1975 he was arrested for marijuana possession and sent to a mental hospital. He was locked up there for a week, then spent four months in state custody, followed by three years of probation. It was clear that Shin’s music career was over.
Although Shin did get back to playing music after the assassination of President Park Jung-Hwi, the world of music had changed so much, and he never really found his footing again. In one interview he described playing at a club in Seoul in the 80’s, when a waiter yelled at him,
“Hey, play faster! We can’t dance to this kind of music!”
Shin recalled, “I realized they were looking for disco music. I was used to seeing Americans dancing gracefully to the rhythm of my music so I played at Korean clubs like I used to play at the American clubs. However, those Korean ignored the rhythm of my music and didn’t even follow the beat. They were just shaking their bodies. I couldn’t stand watching people like that. I immediately stopped playing and told my band members to pack our stuff. I even gave the money back to the club the next day. I became unemployed again.”
Shin is still alive today, and lives outside Seoul.
I get the sense that the part of his story that he is known for is the controversial “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains,” that led to his decline. At one of our Thursday night jams I started playing “햇님,” thinking we could play it at our gig, and the others started playing along for a while. But then 혜민 knelt by me and explained quietly,
“…this is kind of a…. revolution song…..” implying we shouldn’t play it in public. We stopped practicing.
I’ve still been listening the “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains” and “NOW” though. I got a record player, and as a birthday present for myself bought those two albums, along with Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” at a record shop in Seoul. I have been playing those three albums on repeat. Maybe it is just a old-fashioned or conventional mode of lyricism and I am reading too much into this with my poor Korean, but I love how most of the sentences in these songs finish with the verb endings “네” and “군아”–used to show that the speaker is realizing something for the first time. It makes the songs feel like the singer is realizing the truth of what she is singing as she goes along. At least I imagine it that way.
Just my imagination, 환민.
“Beautiful Rivers and Mountains: The Psychedelic Rock Sound of South Korea’s Shin Joong Hyun,” by Kevin “Sipreano” Howes
*I asked her again and she could not remember the name of this artist.
Niblits for Curious Moms:
- The past three weeks or so I have spent getting the kids ready for speaking tests, and testing each and every one of our 400+ students, asking them three questions I choose randomly out of a list of six I give them the week before. The questions draw from various lessons I have done throughout the semester: “How’s the weather today?”, “What would you recommend I do in 전라남도 (the state Mokpo is in)?”, and my personal favorite, “Who will you be in 10 years?” Some of the best answers to the last question include:
- The controller of the MASSIVE cranes that lift and hold whole ships in the yards.
- America’s Next Top Model
- Owner of the universe
- Live in London and be an entrepreneur
- Be dead
- Be superman
- Be a murderer
- Live in Busan and be a professional pet fur dyer
- Live in Manchuria and be a famous animator
- Be a good husband (she guy who said this is a tall, handsome second year who transferred in just a couple weeks ago and ALL THE GIRLS ARE OBSESSED)
- Be a perfume designer
- Also props to the student who strolled to the interview and casually tossed his prohibited phone onto the table. I looked at the phone. Then looked at him. He looked at the phone, yelled “f***”, grabbed it up fast and put it in his pocket. I lay my head down on the table and groaned “아이구~~~~바보야~~~~ aiiiigooooooooo…….. Don’t be dumb….”
- Last weekend was the Fulbright final dinner in Seoul! We had Italian food and salad and amazing desserts on the US Military Base in Itaewon; it was great to see everyone, and say goodbye to everyone who isn’t renewing.
- Just a thought: kids are gross. Last week I spent three hours cleaning my classroom…. Two hours of which I spent on just the floor: hair and nails and bits of ramen and skin and michu wrappers and handouts from class and earrings and an inexplicable tooth…..? How can people leave so much of themselves behind so unscathed?? During one class I watched for several minutes as a boy sat picking at his fingernails with his teeth. Or picking at his teeth with his fingernails? Maybe he was doing both. Anyway, at one point he had his hand so far in his mouth and working so hard it kinda looked like he was trying to eat himself. And I was just standing there thinking, “wow. Really no one else is seeing this….” I love these kids, but they are gross.
- The apartment is a done deal! Three bedroom 2 bath in downtown Mokpo–contract signed, and we can move in on July 14th! Right now we are just trying to start to get furniture together, since we have to furnish it all ourselves….
- Reading list: books I’ve read/recommend this month
- “A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara
- “The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt
- “Animal Farm,” Orwell
- “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Other random recommendation: snail cream. Omg I am obsessed. It is cream made from snails and you put it on your face and you look like a goddess.
Thanks for reading everyone,