We started Korean classes yesterday at the community center. I didn’t expect it to be so popular. Chris, Sean and I arrived together and sat in the back of the class with the rest of the Breakfast Club. Many of us were looking forward to being in classes with a bunch of hot Vietnamese mail-order brides. The room was packed. It looked like a lot of Chinese and Southeast Asian women, some with babies. I wondered why these women brought their babies to class until the teachers started dividing everyone into levels. One of them was a mommy and baby class.

Almost everyone in the Breakfast Club was in attendance. The only other light skinned person was a Russian woman who was dressed like it was still Saturday night. Russian women in Korea tend to dress like that all the time.

On the board, the head teacher showed that she wanted us to divide ourselves into three sections according to the levels we wanted to be in. She told us to not go into a level just because our friends were there. We all went to the lowest level because it was the only class that fit into our schedules.

She then conducted what we were told ahead of time was a level test. The level test consisted of her calling our names and asking us how long we’ve been in Korea (in Korean). If someone had been here for more than a year she usually asked her to come to the board and spell some words in Hangul.

Most of the folks there were straight off the boat — a year or less. And they seemed to speak very well, at least enough to follow along. Then she came to the Westerners in the back.

“How long have you been in Korea?”

“Seven years.”

“How well can you speak Korean?”

(In English) “I don’t understand you.”

It was a little embarrassing. As for me, I had observed the pattern and was prepared to answer. Some in the group lied about how long they had been here. I told the truth. I’m a horrible liar. She brought me up to the board and asked me to spell these long words I had never heard before.

She immediately put me in the lowest level.

All of us ended up there anyway. We had written our names on our sheets in Hangul. Sean tried to transcribe his whole name literally phonetically as he saw it, so Sean Barber became Son Babo손 바보, or “Stupid Hand.”

The teacher actually called out his name as Son Babo before giving him a different spelling.

When this part was finished, the upper levels shuffled off with their new books. She sent a student around to pass out books to the rest of us. Chris and I looked at it and found it too easy. Then the books were taken back. I think they were meant for someone else.

The beginner class was still too big, so she divided it again–university education and non-university education.

There went the hot mail-order Vietnamese brides.

So now we’re in the accelerated beginner course, sharing it with mostly Chinese language teachers. The teacher herself scared everyone. She had huge shoulders like a vulture and smiled a lot–that scary elementary school teacher smile. Occasionally she’d snap and yell at someone for speaking Korea in the impolite casual form (banmal 반말).

Chris said that she should be a good teacher. He’d never want to show up in her class with no homework. This was the first many of us have been students in a long time. And it looked like many of us reverted to the types of students we were when we were younger. I was quiet, taking a lot of notes. Chris was attentive and participated a lot (teacher’s pet). Holly and Sean were in the back talking during most of the class–with Holly speaking banmal to the teacher.

She seemed a little thrilled to have English speakers in her class. She dropped an English word here and there in her lesson. She spoke extremely fast for our ears, and we gained compassion for our own students while sitting there. I was able to follow broadly what she was talking about. She did a little phonetic drill of hard and soft consonants. She also talked about long and short vowels, but I don’t remember her showing us which ones were long and which ones were short.

Next she made a staircase and conjugated “to do” in the levels of politeness and formality. I have found in my own studies that past tense and future tense are easy in Korean compared to English (well, future tense is easy in English). Yet it’s the Confucian system of speaking to people according to their relationship to you that gets frustrating and requires a lot of work.

When class was over, we befriended three Chinese teachers in our class. One of them spoke English and one spoke good Korean. Two of them are married to Chinese men and one is married to a Korean man. We talked about getting together for study and language exchanges some time. Holly was excited. She wanted to learn Chinese. And the Chinese women said they liked her Canadian accent.

I’m enjoying this little group, the Breakfast Club. We have all these different personalities and nationalities. The main thing we have in common is our dedicated relationships to our Korean spouses.

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