Lending an ear, and grammar tips, to frustrated housewives

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Lending an ear, and grammar tips, to frustrated housewives

Teach at an institute for children, and you might be lucky enough to get a class of housewives. Those quiet classes help to ease the strain of teaching bratty pre-schoolers and drowsy middle-schoolers all day.

The best class I ever taught was a group of six housewives, at a school in Nowon-gu, northeast Seoul. Before I started teaching it, I was worried that I wouldn't have anything in common with the students and our conversations would be dull. Boy, was I wrong. As soon as class began, the women got out their laundry list of gripes.

This was years ago, by the way, when Korean women were a tad more repressed. To give you an idea of how long ago it was, Roh Tae-woo was the president.

In fact, when I began teaching the class, the presidential election of 1992 was near. So I asked the housewives about the candidates. Then I had to duck. The first to gripe was Brenda, a sweet and petite young lady: "I want to vote for one candidate," she said, "but my father said I have to vote for another." The five others in the class all nodded, saying that they were in the same predicament.

I can't quite remember whom they liked and whom they had to vote for; I think they favored reform-minded candidates such as Kim Dae-jung but had to vote for the tycoon Chung Ju-yung. I was shocked.

"Why don't you just lie?" I said. "Tell your fathers you voted for Chung but vote for Kim." They laughed, and said they couldn't disobey their fathers.

Later came grumbling about their evil mothers-in-law. Every day, the housewives recited their latest horror stories. One, full of rage, would say, "My mother-in-law criticized my cooking last night!" Another would say, "My mother-in-law said I should change my hairstyle!" Another would say, "My husband and I want to go abroad for our vacation, but she said we should go to Jeju." My image of a Korean mother-in-law was like some kind of malevolent disapproval machine.

I really enjoyed that class. But I felt a bit guilty - those ladies were paying 100,000 won ($125 at the time) a month to chat with me for 90 minutes a few mornings a week. And they took me out to lunch afterward. The class was a breeze ?the only real work I did was point out the odd grammar mistake.

But sometimes I thought differently. These women were repressed, the hard chairs they sat on were virtual couches and I was their therapist, taking notes. After airing injustices for an hour and a half, they left healthier. And getting counseling in a second language, English, had an advantage: If they said anything incriminating, they could always plead that they meant something else.

If my boss had known what went on in that class, he would have hiked the rates and called me "Dr. Mike."

by Mike Ferrin
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