All that monkeying around can lead to some knowledgeI am ashamed to say that much of the Korean I have picked up consists of slang and foul language. On the other hand, I have a pretty good excuse, given that I have spent a large amount of my time here teaching children, who have a vast vocabulary of colloquialisms.
The couple of years I spent teaching elementary and middle school kids in a private language institute were particularly fruitful in this regard. I am not sure what the students got from me, but I definitely accumulated a nice store of expressions.
Since my students could not speak much English, and constantly jabbered away in Korean, I naturally became curious to know what they were saying about me. Consultations with Korean colleagues soon revealed that it was better not to be called babo, or idiot, and that jajeungna (which can be cleaned up to “How annoying!”) was not an exclamation of pleasure at my carefully prepared activities.
Having cleared up these important recurring issues, I felt I had become expert at dealing with insults ― unlike one sensitive colleague who resigned after being taunted with the title of ajumma, or housewife. Water off a duck’s back, I thought.
But insults delivered in one’s native language have far greater power to shock than those spoken in another tongue. I can swear myself blue in Czech, for example, and feel nothing. But the same terms in English send a shiver down my spine when I hear them used in public. So the day a boy sent an English four-letter word in my direction I was suitably stunned.
It was only later, after I had reduced the child to tears, that I realized that the English expression he had used sounds somewhat like the Korean surname Park joined with the given name Kyu.
After discouraging the use of “such language” in my classroom I thought I had the insult problem under control.
Then, I came into class one day to find an inscription on my desk place exactly where I was most likely to see it.
It read: “Jeremy is an orangutan.” While not exactly offended, I could not tolerate the defacing of school property.
“Who did this?” I demanded. All fingers instantly pointed to the same boy who had perpetrated the “Park Kyu.”
For appropriate punishment I summoned the school manager, who turned to me and asked, “What is ‘orangutan?’” I pointed out the relevant creature in an animal poster on the wall, whereupon the manager promptly marched the miscreant away by his ear.
It was only then that I realized that instead of punishing the boy I should have congratulated him for having a larger vocabulary than the school manager.
by Jeremy Garlick
Mr. Garlick lectures at a university in Seoul.