So the maintenance guy at our school is pretty old, and in my opinion, not the politest of dudes. Once, when a screw fell out of the bottom of my chair, instead of just putting the screw back in, he went and got me a new chair. That would have been fine, except he’d dragged the new chair out of storage so it was completely coated in not only 1) dust but also, somehow, inexplicably and mysteriously and also, yes, disgustingly—2) dog hair. Can’t explain it and didn’t ask. What I can explain is that it should have been perfectly clear the moment the guy laid eyes on that thing in storage that he should just give up and do the easier thing by just repairing my original chair. Instead he dragged it all the way over here from wherever that closet was, and by the fuss he was making about huffing and puffing, I don’t think it was close by. After he dragged it in front of my desk and made me test it out (don’t remember what I was wearing but those clothes were forever ruined), I had the pleasure of informing him that it was uncomfortable, and that I was allergic to dogs (also to dust like any normal person but I didn’t tell him that), and I asked him if he could just repair my actual chair. I had this entire conversation in Korean. So he said in Korean, the original’s always the best, huh, before making a display of wheeling off the cursed chair, before coming back and screwing the screw back into my original chair. It took about two minutes.
Now this guy is the one who takes care of pretty much any broken thing or malfunctioning thing in the school, which can range from broken chairs to flickering lightbulbs. But something I’ve noticed is that whenever he has something he has to do or that someone has asked him to do, whenever he gets around to deciding to do it, it has to become a top priority to everyone involved, including the teacher who asked for the favor. I have seen him interrupt conversations to announce that he’s going to go upstairs to fix the lightbulb and then come back down after fixing the lightbulb, interrupt another conversation just to whine about how hard it was to do it and to give instructions on how to behave around a lightbulb so that this doesn’t happen again. I’ve seen him interrupt phone calls, rip teachers away from their class preparations or grading, all because if he has to wait a single minute or two to say what he wants to say, the whole world is gonna end. He stops by the office whenever he does some routine maintenance in one of our classrooms just to let us know that he’s done it, with an air of what seems to be a need for recognition and undying gratitude. Once he did something in my co-teacher’s classroom that was taking longer than he thought because it was “hard” (his words) and he asked me to tell her that the next time I saw her, even though I was (and am) 100% sure my co-teacher didn’t care that he was even doing what he was doing. Yet, on my best behavior, I promised to tell her. I have seen these things with my own two eyes and experienced them as well. In Korean culture you are forced to hide the fact that you don’t like someone by treating people who are rude the same as everyone else, but I don’t think that’s fair, and I will give him only the peremptory nod / bow when we pass in the hallways. In my world, people have to earn my being nice to them.
I don’t like him.
Now that it’s summer vacation, the staff who
come out to the school are very few in number. They include myself, my
co-teacher, the administration staff, the maintenance staff, and the principal
and vice principal. Now that there’s so few of us here, someone has gotten it into their heads that
it’d be great if
we all ate together, so I have been forced into a couple group lunches with
people that made me regret I even know how to hear. When I was learning Korean,
I never stopped to consider that I might regret understanding everything people
were saying around me. I should have.
I’m an introverted person, and I don’t like spending my time, which is
precious to me, with people I don’t like. Unfortunately, after four years in a culture that just
sucks the life out of me, the list of people I dislike is only growing. There
are people in any given situation that surround me that I would pay money to
get away from, but it’s really bad for me when I’m at work and I have to mingle.
Firstly, they constantly hurt my feelings without realizing it or meaning to. It’s not hard to hurt my feelings, since I’m probably one of the world’s most sensitive beings, but they’re just kinda clueless. For example, they consistently refer to me as “the foreigner” in front of me, I mean when I’m literally sitting at the same table as them, and just the sight of my face is enough to launch them into tales of their travels in exotic lands. Then, when I reveal a preference of mine that happens to not be a Korean preference, they always then talk amongst themselves about how it be like that in other lands and that’s the reason I am the weird way that I am. (They don’t use the word weird but I know they’re saying it in their hearts.) I am constantly viewed as other (not that I wanna be viewed as one of them) and constantly talked about as other. All of my beliefs, words, preferences, are boiled down to me being foreign and not just me being me. Even my extreme independence is taken as a sign that people don’t take care of each other in America and don’t care about each other and that you just have to learn to fend for yourself (actually heard these words today [in Korean], couldn’t even make it up). In these situations, I think about speaking up, and explaining listen, I’m not Miss America, I don’t represent every single person who is not Korean, I am myself because I am me, not because I came out of the America Factory. But then I remember, these are all adults and they should already know that. If I did choose to actually say anything, it’d just be a pearls-before-swine situation.
Secondly, they always talk about me in front of me, and by that I mean they always talk about how amazed they are that I speak Korean. Last Friday I was invited to lunch (forced into going, more like) and there’s a new administration lady who has never really spent time with me before, and she was sitting next to me. The cook, who is one of the admin ladies I’m closer to, knew I’ve had enteritis for a while so she told the table to feed me from the “not spicy” plate. Of course, everyone assumed it was because I’m white and I therefore can’t eat spicy food despite the fact that I can and do (when I don’t have enteritis). I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single time a Korean person (who is not my close friend) eats spicy food around me they either 1) tell me I can’t eat it or 2) ask me “won’t it be too hot for you?” instead of asking me if I 1) like spicy food, 2) can eat spicy food, or 3) want to try it, like a normal person would. I mean every. single. time. (I’m getting mad just writing about it lol.) So, it came as no surprise to me that the entire table then began telling me which side dishes to eat and which ones not to.
Let’s come back to the maintenance guy. Unfortunately, and depressingly, he was sitting on my right side (I was at the short end of the very long table, in which the short end had room for only me to sit, so I had new admin lady on my left and maintenance guy on my right). Despite the fact that everyone had heard the cook (cause she screamed it) saying to feed me the non-spicy food, the maintenance guy pointed at one plate and said “hot” and at the other and said “no hot.” So I said, “no hot” and took a piece from that plate. He was actually staring at me the entire time I ate; not sure if I amazed him by being able to use chopsticks, or what. We were eating 부침개, a Korean-style chive pancake, which is traditionally eaten with soy sauce-vinegar dip, a fact that I know well, seeing as I have eaten it for four years and even cooked it at home. But, you know, I’m not Korean, so the admin ladies on my left were giving me instructions on how to eat: dip the pancake in the soy sauce and then eat it, and also eat these side dishes. As they were pointing out the tiny baby anchovies and peppers side dish (which I would normally NEVER EVER EVER eat –they still have their eyes 😦 –), the maintenance guy on my right said no, she can’t eat that, that’s spicy. So the admin ladies said it’s not that spicy, to which the maintenance guy goes well to us it’s not spicy but to HER it will be.
At this point I was doing my best not to burst into real live flames, so I didn’t say anything. The vice principal, on the other side of the admin ladies, heard our conversation and turned to me and asked, in Korean, because she actually remembers that I can speak it, “is it too spicy, Lily?” I took my chance. I said—in what, I might add, is perfect Korean— “I didn’t try it, so I don’t know. And you know, I actually eat spicy food really well, but right now I have enteritis so I shouldn’t.”
I didn’t even have time to feel satisfied
at having defended myself when the new admin lady on my left yelped “oh my god, she speaks Korean,” and then she turned to me and
said “you speak it
First of all, lady, you’re new so I’m trying hard not to be mad, but don’t you think I, who have personally spent all those hours studying and speaking this language, know that I can speak it well? I will never understand the amazement of Korean people when a foreigner speaks their language at any level above the snippets you can easily pick up watching K-dramas or listening to K-pop (and yeah I’m allowed to make a dig because I’ve spent about six years teaching myself to speak Korean without either of those things and I can actually do it). How is it so hard to understand that people learn other languages and then speak them? AND ALSO I’M LIVING IN YOUR COUNTRY, I NEED KOREAN TO LIVE. Sure, I’m a bit touchy. Hard not to be when you’re living in the hell so horrible even Dante couldn’t imagine it.
This is a constant, nearly daily experience for me. Someone new finds out I speak Korean and then gets all amazed about it and talks about it to everyone around them. So that’s fine, because eventually the moment passes and everyone goes back to their normal lives (except me, because every time someone says “you’re so good at Korean” I lose a brain cell). But leave it to Mr. Maintenance Man to drag the moment out for As Long As Possible. After new admin lady had her exclamation and I had responded by politely smiling at my plate, he decides to speak up on the same topic.
That morning, I had been outside of the classroom preparing a side room for some one-on-one interviews with the kids, and while I was going back to the classroom the maintenance guy was passing by and asked me, in Korean, if my coteacher had come yet. I told him, in the most respectful Korean possible, that she hadn’t come yet. (Her car was having trouble and she had to walk from the repair shop. Didn’t tell him that. Doesn’t deserve to know.) He then pointed at the locked door to the P.E. department’s office and asked me if I knew the passcode for the lock. I, me, an English teacher, who appears not to ever have exercised a day in her life, do not know the passcode, so I told him I didn’t.
In Korean, there’s two ways to say “I don’t know.” One of them could be translated
in tone and meaning to “I’m sorry, I wouldn’t know that,” and the other could be translated in tone and meaning to “i dunno” and I, in a moment I did not know
would later prove fatal to me, answered him “i dunno.” (I was still using polite
language; for those of you who speak Korean you probably know that what I’m talking about is the difference
between saying “잘
모르겠어요” and “잘 몰라요.” I said the latter, and actually,
the exact words I said were “저는
잘 몰라요.”) He seemed slightly amused but also upset that I didn’t know (AND WHY WOULD I
KNOW????????) but I didn’t pay it any mind and went on with my day.
Now, we’re all at the table together and this guy is talking which means he’s gotta have everyone’s attention (and somehow, he does), and he says, “now, I speak English” (he basically knows vocabulary but I’ve never heard him make a sentence), “but this morning I asked her what the passcode on the PE office door was and she said ‘나는 몰라요!’” (“i dunno.”) He looked at me, slightly smiling, with another kind of expression that I thought might have been admiration and might have been him wanting me to be impressed with his being impressed (cause his opinion is a Big Deal). A couple listening teachers laughed—he basically just told them I said “i dunno” and on top of that, that I used the informal word for “I” which I did NOT use. So not only did he ONLY tell them that and not tell them about my prior, perfectly polite and proper sentence (that my coteacher didn’t come yet), but he also told them all I had been improperly informal with him. But I just let it go.
Unfortunately, Mr. Maintenance Man was not done. He went on, “never, in all my years at this school, have I ever seen a foreign teacher who could speak Korean. Never.” And then he looked at me again and I pinned the expression down: it was a look that said that in his Opinion, the entire culmination of my learning Korean—of my years of hours and hours of daily study, my stretches out of my comfort zone to meet language partners and practice speaking, my constant naver dictionary searches, my daily Korean-language-diary writing, my one-year relationship with a Korean man in which we spoke exclusively in Korean with no exceptions—the culmination of all of this was that he would be impressed with me. That was the be all and end all of my Korean learning journey. I was now successful and my journey was now meaningful, and it was all because he was impressed with my skill.
No matter where I am in the world, people are consistently and without fail severely overestimating the extent to which their opinion or regard of me actually matters to me. By giving me their approval, if they’re not my close friend, they’re basically giving me monopoly money. It’s not anything personal; it’s just that I honestly couldn’t care less. I couldn’t care less whether anyone knows I speak Korean, whether anyone respects the fact that I learned it by myself through my own determination, whether anyone’s impressed by the fact I actually know how to make sentences and express my opinion, or whether someone thinks I’m the best foreigner they’ve ever met. I just. don’t. care. I’m like that about most things; if you’re not my friend (and ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE AN OLD MAN!!!!!!) I really honestly don’t care what you think of me. I was just out here being me and I was gonna be me whether you were ever aware of me or not; the fact that you noticed me is incidental and could never be the motivation for my doing anything, ever. When I wrote a novel in 11 months during university, I told my manager at the library what I’d done (mostly because I spent most of my time at the loan desk writing it) and he told me I should get it published. Just assumed that’s the natural progression of things. A lot of people say that to me when they find out how much writing is taking up space on my hard drive.
Listen, I’m not doing what I’m doing for anyone else but me. I was going to do it anyway and I’m going to keep doing it anyway. Why can’t anyone understand that? I was awarded three separate awards at UCI when I was there, but wouldn’t let my dad put that information on my graduation announcements because I felt like yeah, it’s lovely to get confirmation that I’m doing something well, but I didn’t set out to get those awards—I didn’t even know they existed. I was just living my life, studying because I love studying, writing stories and poems because I love writing stories and poems. I was always going to do those things whether or not someone noticed I was doing them. The awards—I felt like if they were on my graduation announcements it would make it look like I had tried in some way to get recognition for what I was doing and that something of my performance was dependent on that recognition. I understand this is hard for people to understand in this case—but my dad respected my decision and therefore, most of my extended family is blissfully unaware that I received awards for my writing and work ethic in college.
And I like it that way. I like sharing information with people close to me, who care about me, and who would get to know me whether or not I was good at what I loved.
When I was walking out from my office exiting the school that day of the “cursed lunch,” I passed Mr. Maintenance in the hallway. He was smiling at me before I even looked at him. He greeted me not with a return of the curt nod that I gave him, but with a completely Korean salutation—“you worked hard today.” I continued on by, thinking, oh, you have no idea.