Language lessons for an American in Seoul

Three boys on a subway platform in South Korea summon courage to test their text-book English on a native speaker. The result was charming.

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    Passengers debark from a train in Seoul, South Korea.
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As I waited on the subway platform in Yang Ju, a small city about an hour north of Seoul, I became aware of a trio of adolescent boys roughhousing their way in my direction. I was the only blonde on the platform, and even though I'm pear-shaped and grandmotherly, I had not gone unnoticed by the boys. I suspected they were working up courage to try out their classroom English on an actual "native speaker."

I had come to South Korea for an adventure. Leaving friends and family in the United States, I counted on the Internet to keep us connected for a year while I taught English. You can live through anything for a year, I figured. I'd tried to pick up some Korean words before my departure, but Korean is no Romance language, and after weeks of practice and concentration I had managed to memorize just two phrases, "Hello," and "Thank you." Language might be a problem, I thought.

All I knew about the country was that there was an evil warlord to the north and that the TV show "M*A*S*H" had been set there. When I envisioned teaching at the small English after-school academy where I'd been placed, I mentally saw before me classes of uniformed, disciplined students sitting politely with hands folded, eager to learn English. In the brochure from the placement service, students were, in fact, standing in enthusiasm, arms waving to get the attention of the teacher.

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Brochures can be misleading.

A month had gone by, and no children were standing in enthusiasm yet.

Clearly the students loved having a new face in the classroom. They also loved to hide under desks, see if they could sneak up behind me during class, slam their plastic pencil cases open and shut with satisfying velocity and maximum volume, and, in the case of kindergartners, chase each other around the room, shrieking, while I vainly remonstrated in a language they couldn't understand. "Now, now, let's be quiet. Watch the computer. Isn't this fun?"

Confused as things were in the classroom those first weeks, outside school, for the first time in my life, I was experiencing a kind of celebrity. Strangers would greet me in the street to try out their English. In the grocery store my two phrases of Korean were hits. It was not unusual for mothers to bring their children over so they could meet a foreigner. When I would lean forward and say, "Anyeo haseo" (hello), mothers would sometimes suck in their breath, amazed that a Westerner knew any Korean at all, and the children, some barely walking, would automatically bend over in a bellybutton bow in response to the familiar greeting from an adult. This was worth every moment of my hours of linguistic practice.

So, now, I was about to try a trip into Seoul on my own. The director of my school wrote down which trains I should take, my home address in Korean to give to the taxi driver when I returned, and his cellphone number in case of an emergency. Armed with my phone, a subway map in English, and, most important, a benign facial expression, I was ready to fly solo into one of the world's largest cities.

The three boys on the subway platform circled in, gathering the nerve to talk.

"Hello," I said with a smile to the nearest. "What's your name?"

He met the challenge. "I'm Jack!" he yelled happily.

"And how old are you," I followed up.

"Tuesday!" he answered proudly.

Another boy spoke. "I'm Sam."

"And how old are you, Sam?" I asked. So far we had followed the standard pattern of English that children learn in elementary school.

"20!"

"Ah, 12?"

He nodded.

With that, Jack began punching Sam and giggling. Having exhausted their English, and their nerve, they turned to run down the platform, waving happy goodbyes.

"See you later!" I waved.

"See you later!" they yelled.

Then Sam turned back, running backward for a few yards while he waved. "You're gorgeous!" he yelled.

I think a year may not be long enough in South Korea.

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