The Bohemian Experiment

The Kimchi Chronicles (Volume II: A Speech Contest Day Miracle)

Posted by beckert10 on January 20, 2010


As the first period bell rings Dave sets down his bible and gathers his textbooks. Joe does a quick hair-check in a small mirror he keeps on his desk. Betty Anne slips the rest of a piece of bread in her mouth and glances around guiltily, as if she doesn’t want anybody to see her eating. Seth picks his head up, looking as if he’s just received bad news.
“Teachers, bell has rung. Please go to classroom.” says Jean in her trademark twaddle.
“Jean, can I ask you something?” I say.
“Mmm, yes, what?”
“Do you know what a carbuncle is?”
“No, what is?”
“Nothing, don’t worry about it. Thanks.”
I finish writing my evaluation.
Harry, Class A4
Harry has the mental acuity of a carbuncle and lacks basic emotions. He is a good speller. Pronunciation needs improvement.
“OK teachers, let’s go!” says Jean. “Remember, be forever happy and smile!”
She’s like a cheerleader for a low-budget high-school football program.
“Did you hear that?” I say to Seth. “Smile! Up you American pig!”
All the other teachers have left the room.
I won’t feel forever happy until third period, when the speech contest begins. Until then I have ninety minutes of small, Korean children to deal with.

Every day my first period students play a game where they hide and try to scare me when I enter the classroom. Today I figure I’ll ignore them and see if they stay hidden the entire class. Unfortunately, the attention-span of a first grader lasts scarcely more than a minute. One student sneaks up behind me and attempts to deliver a “dong-shim.” This is done by aligning the thumbs and forefingers into a gun-shape and interlocking the remaining digits. Next, the hands are thrust upwards towards an unsuspecting victims’ anus.
I receive a direct hit, which doesn’t sit well with Brian Teacher. I retaliate, forgetting to take into consideration my superior firepower. Now, little Johnny is crying on the floor, grasping his bottom.
“No, no, don’t cry, it’s OK,” I tell him
“Look, you do to Brian Teacher.”
I present my buttocks and encourage him to give me a good shot. Jean walks by and sees me offering my rectum to the fallen student. She comes in.
“Oh my god, why?”
“Just a little accident,” I say. “Everything is fine.”
After that it’s a flurry of Korean between Jean and the students, from which I can’t make out much more than “dong-shim.” Jean calls me out into the hallway.
“Brian, young students very active. Please no game and encourage to study on and on for best.”
“Yes, of course.”
Back in the classroom the tears have stopped and given way to a flurry of dong-shiming.
“OK guys, please sit down. Homework check. Books out.” I say.
The girls obediently take out their texts while the boys continue to target each others’ butt holes.
“No stickers…” I threaten them.
Dealing with a Korean child is essentially no different than managing an animal. Control depends upon a system of commands, rewards and punishments. In this case the operant conditioning revolves around a board entitled, “Best student” on which stickers are placed for good behavior, or at least for generally not acting like barbarians. The four girls have are about dead-even with 20 stickers apiece. The four boys have eight between them. Watching little boys in action leaves no doubt that men are the more beast-like of the genders. This doesn’t change over the years; males only learn to disguise their atavism better.
At last all books are out and I go down the aisles and mark who has and hasn’t done homework.
About a third of the girls in the school are named Julie, Sally, Jane, or Jenny. Among boys, Harry, John, Steve and Billy lead the pack. The majority of the rest go by a smattering of American celebrity names. Occasionally, a student has a name like Taluka or Glody that sounds like it belongs to an African distance runner. Then, there are titles such as Ninja or Butterfly. I’m never sure if these are monikers bestowed on them by previous teachers or the product of a parent with inadequate English. And, even those kids who end up with a normal name aren’t safe from the wildcard: the secretaries who can’t speak or read English but must enter the students’ information into the computer. With the flick of a finger Clara becomes Glara; Stan, Stab. The only thing more ridiculous is that the students insist on being called by their botched names.
“Wrestler. Hey Wrestler. Homework?” I say.
He stares at me blankly with a finger up his nose.
“Homework. Homework book.” I point to his classmates’.
“Ahhhhh,” he says and pulls a mangled notebook out of his bag. The other boys pet my forearms, which are still a novelty in a nation of nearly-hairless men.
Today’s class is good because homework check has taken up a third of the time.
“OK guys, books out. Reading books.” I say, holding up mine as a model. Again, the girls respond almost immediately while it takes a good five minutes for the boys to take out their books and open to the appropriate page.
“OK, first, Brian teacher say. Then, you say. A-a-apple, B-b-balloon, C-c-cake, D-d-dog, E-e-elephant…”
F-f-fuck me. There is no way to make a phonics book for 1st grade, non-native English speakers interesting. The only part worse than the content is trying to stretch it for thirty minutes, five times a week.
“Y-y-yoyo…Z-z-zebra. One more time…”
On any given day I have the girls’ attention for between five and ten minutes and the boys’ two or three before they rediscover their noses or their classmates. I’ve come to accept this. This age group isn’t expected to learn much. Rather, my role is to get them used to foreigners. I am a starter white guy. All I need to do is maintain a semblance of order. Open books give the appearance that we are studying actively on and on to make the happy learning time.

The bell sends me in retreat back to the teachers’ room. The older elementary students begin to arrive and the lobby is clogged with kids, parents, teachers and staff. Since living here I’ve adopted the Korean approach to moving through a crowd. I lower my shoulder and barrel through, knocking slighter built students to the side.
Back in the teachers’ lounge the sound of young girls’ overly-dramatic shrieks are still audible. Several students pop their heads in curiously. It seems as if they have trouble believing we foreigners exist at all outside of the classroom. They watch us like zoo animals as we shoot down small cups of coffee and cram in mouthfuls of food.
“Brian Teacher.”
I look towards the door. One of my students is gesturing for me to come over. I wave her towards me.
She holds out her hand and offers a pile of crushed, uncooked ramen noodles.
“Wow, thanks Julie. Mmmm looks good.”
She passes them to me and some stick to her sweaty palm. After that she slowly walks back out towards the door, watching to see if I eat them. I stand up and pretend to go file some papers and as I do I drop the mangled noodles into Betty Anne’s handbag. I turn back to Julie and pretend to be chewing.
“Mmmm… yummy Julie. Thank you.”
Satisfied, she rejoins her classmates in the lobby.
Jean closes the door and calls for the teachers’ attention.
“OK teachers. I have small information to tell. Please finish student evaluation on Friday. Next week I am calling parents and speak them. Please writing one good thing and one bad thing for students.”
I’ve found if that if this requirement is met, it’s possible to write anything else, as long as one disguises their English. For example, I write:
Mary, Class B4
If whingeing and smelling like fermented produce were indicators of scholarly aptitude, then Mary would be at the top of her class. As they are not, I foresee a life marked by mediocrity. A good reader. Needs to improve listening.
Most of the teachers don’t even acknowledge Jean. The only one really paying attention is Dave. Betty Anne looks around cautiously before slipping some raisins into her mouth. Joe is browsing the internet for new clothes. Seth is eating a convenience store sandwich. This is a dangerous proposition in any country, and especially one where you can’t read the ingredients. He takes it down in about 5 bites and lets loose a gurgling burp which makes the Christian shudder.
I continue writing.
Steve, Class B2
Steve’s knack for the English language is no better than that of an invertebrate. I’m forced to consider the direction of my life each time I’m in his presence. In my opinion, he will continue to be a drain on all those around him well into middle-age. He is a good writer but needs to work on his behavior.

Speech contest is almost ready to begin. The twice-yearly spectacle involves students’ recitations of a given topic in front of their peers and teachers. For the non-participants, it is pretty much a day off from classes. The same goes for teachers, only we have the burden of scoring the speeches, which generally range from shitty to god awful. The event is on par with an office workshop or training day: it’s boring, but you generally don’t have to do much and it’s slightly better than actually working.
In the lobby the secretaries try to settle down eighty rambunctious students. The contest participants nervously make final preparations in classroom one. Jean hands out a scoring sheet to the teachers and provides some last minute instructions.
“As you know, we have speech contest now. Students are very hard for speech contest so show them your eagerness. Also, as you know, some parents at speech contest so please do best to be generous and paramount for parents.”
After the briefing she moves to the lobby and begins to speak into a portable PA system. After saying a few words in Korean she announces, “OK, now, teachers will please come.”
We take our seats on a lineup of chairs against the wall, making an informal judge’s panel. Jean claps twice and the students are supposed to respond in unison to show they are paying attention. The excitement is too much for some of them and they can’t sit still.
“Everybody, please shit! Shit down! Shit! Now crap! Like this! Crap hands!” says Jean.
After a minute or so all of the students at last shit and crap and the speech contest is ready to begin.
Before it does, though, Jean addresses a group of about twenty parents at the back of the room. The truth is this performance is all for them. English in Korea is two things: a business and a status symbol. Koreans understand that the language is an integral part of globalization, and that not being able to speak it leaves them at a serious disadvantage. What’s happened, though, is that their near-obsession with learning English has turned into a massive and massively profitable industry where schools sell not so much English, but the appearance of learning English.
For the parents, the consumers, the important thing is being able to afford to send their kid to a private academy. They want to see foreign teachers and English textbooks and drop in once a semester to lean against the wall, beaming with hubris, as English words come out of their child’s mouth. The problem is that they don’t understand how horrifically bad that English actually is. This bastardization of the Anglo tongue is the result of schools trying to keep parents happy, and the parents are happy if they are told during the once a semester telephone conferences that everything is fine, their child is learning, he is brilliant and happy and yes, maybe his spelling needs improvement and his pronunciation could use some work, but overall he’s doing well. Keep paying the tuition; its money well spent. The management doesn’t care if the kids learn English as long as they can memorize the material long enough to pass an exam. They just want the textbooks finished, so a shiny new one can be sent home and shown off as the illusion of progress.
The staff and teachers win because they make a nice fat paycheck out of this farce. The parents win because they have the satisfaction of knowing their child is learning the ever-important English. The only losers are the students who are merely pawns in an industry that is epitomized by this orchestration called speech contest, where Koreans, foreigners and English intersect in a vague, fabricated idea of a better and happy forever prosperous joyful life. But make no mistake about it: never, ever, not even for a moment, is any of this about learning English.

The topic of this semester’s speech contest is “My Family”.
First up to present is Billy from class A4. Like most 12 year old Korean boys he has black hair, a bowl cut, glasses and a kimchi stain down the front of his shirt. His poster board is adorned with photos of him and his family on vacation. The ‘i’ in ‘Family’ has been awkwardly added in after the fact over the top of the m and the l. After a nervous look around he begins.
“My family. My family is me, brother, mother, father sister. Father job microprocessor and is kind. Mother…mother…
Jean tries to get some encouragement from the crowd. “Crap…come on…crap for Billy!”
“Mother….mother cook home. Sister pretty. My study math go USA. Thank you my speech.”
Hmm, Billy…not your best work…though graded on a curve this will probably be in the top 2/3. 7.5 out of 10.
“OK good job Billy. Next student is Harry 2.”
Most students named Harry are a little on the meaty side, and this one is no exception. Like his classmate he too sports a look common among his age group: gray hairs. While learning English may not be real in Korea, the pressure to learn it is. Koreans believe education is the cornerstone of success, resulting in fierce competition in both public schools and private institutions like this one. And English is only part of it. Most students attend at least one or two additional academies to perfect skills such as math, science and Korean. In an atmosphere where not being the best is often regarded as failure, it’s easy to see why students gray at the age of twelve and indeed, why South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Harry clears his throat, works out a facial tic and begins his speech.
“My family is me, father and mother. Father has Samsung job. He is smart. Mother is clean the house. She is kind. My is student. I like chicken. Thank you for listen my speech.”
Solid delivery. This will be hard to beat. 9.5 out of 10.
I decide to take advantage of the time and grade a few journals, which are the students’ weekly writing assignments. Excerpts from this batch include:
Jenny, Class B4
“My Weekend”
This weekend I made an omelet and ate my family.
Daisy, Class C6
“Test”
In my weekend I creamed for an exam. I know creaming is not the best way to prepare for an exam.
Jessica, Class D2
“My Hero”
My hero is Oprah Winfrey because she overcame being ugly negro.
Stan, Class C6
“Math”
I like math because I use math to find the rectum.
“Very good,” says Jean. “Thank you. Next student Sally.”
As I pick up a new stack of diaries Seth grabs my arm.
“Dude.”
“What?”
“Dude…look.”
He points to Sally. I see nothing out of the ordinary. Straight black hair. Glasses. Pink outfit…and there it is. In silver lettering on Sally’s shirt are the words, “I Fuck on the First Date.”
The teachers look at each other. It is a silent meeting to decide whether to do something or not. Nobody makes a move.
I measure the parents’ reactions. There is no sign of recognition that the girl at the front of the room is endorsing promiscuity. None of the students appear to notice either. Jean doesn’t have a clue. She pats the girl on the shoulder and tells her to begin. Sally delivers her monologue and at the end everybody craps and the next speaker is brought on.
It is a speech contest day miracle. Sally’s pretty pink shirt is an indictment of the entire English-language business in Korea. Wearing those six embossed words, she lays bare the entire sham.
Seth pulls me close to him and says,
“Dude, this is the greatest day of our teaching careers.”

Click here to read Part III: Happy Hour in Hades

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13 Responses to “The Kimchi Chronicles (Volume II: A Speech Contest Day Miracle)”

  1. Marcus said

    This is classic stuff, required reading. Keep them coming!

  2. ross said

    Great stuff bud! I don’t think tales of the starter foreigner in Korea will ever get old. It’s an odd hand to draw for sure. Take a rest and enjoy the four seasons.

  3. curtis said

    I just stumbled on this somehow, and it’s just about the most accurate description of teaching english in Seoul that I’ve ever seen. Great writing, keep it up!

  4. Man, this is fucking brilliant. Well done, dude. Well done.

  5. Alex said

    This was fucking awesome! Just like my experience teaching at a hagwon last year.

    One day, a kid showed up at my boyfriend’s school wearing a shirt that said “TOO DRUNK TO FUCK”. He was 9…his mom bought him the shirt.

  6. jeff said

    Brian, I’ve had your same students. Your writing is sardonic, witty and reflective. Not wholly undisturbing, definitely accurate, and revealing a whole other universe where language learning becomes as twisted as the mind of the teacher trying to comprehend the fundamental logic behind it all.

  7. Caitlin said

    Hilarious. How did you grade Sally?

  8. HollyPolly said

    Hey i leave for Korea (gwangju) in feb and have no real clue what i’m heading for. But i have to say that while your blog is slightly scary it’s endlessly amusing.

  9. Gary said

    Aww now, we had a few good students whose English improved some. I remember one named Rachel who I asked what do you do when you are sad and her reply was “Eat chocolate” Smarter than the average dog I thought. True I think there were maybe 5-8 students whose English was decent when I was at the hagwon with you and the not possible dragon lady Jean. Love to run into her again just to say I’m still standing!

    • beckert10 said

      Yes, there were some good ones…but I suppose they don’t make for a very good story. The handful of kids that were good unfortunately weren’t challenged or pushed because by and large the students’ Englishey was terrible…but still better than Jean’s.

  10. Kels said

    I can dig your piece for its accuracy towards certain Korean tendencies, but it seems you’ve attached yourself to painfully prototypical stereotypes for the sake of a laugh or two. We’re talking the fat girl who eats secretly, the gay dude, and the Korean teacher who professes to speak English but can’t for the life of her, etc. Shit’s more complicated than that, man. You’ve got some good insight toward the true uses of codified Korean English – try something fresh!

  11. Howie said

    Hilarious. Tears running down my cheek!

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