I am tired of being brave.
I angled my body so I could write on the board and still see my students, as we had been taught in training. It was like standing on a surf board, but in heels with a dry-erase marker. This was my first class at ChungDahm Institute.
“Teacher,” I heard one of my students begin, that tone in her voice, the one children get when they think they know something.
“Yes … Scarlett?”
“You pregnant with baby?”
Before I came to work, I stood in front of a full-length mirror and adjusted the leather belt cinched around my dress as stories told to me by my sister, who had already been a teacher in South Korea for a year, replayed in my head. Once she was coaxing a student to practice writing descriptive sentences. He stared at Rachel and then scribbled something down. When she looked at his paper she saw his lone sentence: Her leg is as big as an elephant’s.
Scarlett, I could tell, was not malicious. But still, as soon as she asked, her eyes, as well as the rest of the class, fixed on my stomach, I was a girl again, not the confident, 29-year-old feminist who uses the term “partner” on Facebook for the man she married.
“No, Scarlett. I’m not.”
Her tiny forehead made a crease. She didn’t believe me.
During my second class, I explained the homework and asked if anyone had questions.
Jennifer raised her hand. “Do you think you’re pretty?”
I had taught at universities in America for seven years. I had a reputation for pushing my students, remaining cool yet fierce, calling them out when they dozed through class, made ignorant remarks, or didn’t do their homework. I kept tissues in my office for when someone cried in the midst of a grade dispute. I was used to being stared at, critiqued, accused. An older male student once left a message on my office phone relaying that I was “looking really good up there teaching today. Black’s a good color for you.” To his credit, he did call back the next day and apologize, claiming he was high. Other male students had referred to me as “cupcake” in class or asked if I was sexually attracted to anyone in the room. And once, while I was walking from desk to desk, checking revisions, I felt someone staring at me. “Is something wrong, Blake?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But you’re killing me with those boots.”
I let it all slide off me. Too young to realize what was happening I dismissed it as the rampant misfiring of testosterone. Even the women, in their own way, sexually harassed me. I was barely older than them: we listened to the same music, ran into each other at the local bars. They tried to buy me drinks, leaned in close to my ear, touched my shoulder and breathed You are so fucking cool.
Standing in front of a class of silent, obedient Asian children, however, was new to me. They were born after I graduated high school. They had never seen a typewriter, and I caught myself describing one as “a keyboard with ink in it.” Their questions were softballs compared to what I was used to, but I didn’t know how to deal with them. Was Jennifer asking me that because she thought I was pretty? Or, was I giving the impression I thought I was pretty, but she didn’t agree? Additionally, why was I letting this pre-teen with braces rattle me like I was going through pledge week? In America, I relied on a steady blend of profanity and sarcasm. It didn’t seem right to tell her to shut the fuck up and get back to work.
“I’m married,” was my thoughtless answer to her. “So I don’t have to think about that.”
“Can I take a picture of you?”
She fumbled with her phone and brought it up to eye-level.
“Smile,” she said.
So I did.
My mother grew up working in the sun with her father, her body long and tireless. A tomboy who hated school, he used to carry her, screaming, to the school bus. When she went to college, she majored in Physical Education. In the ’80s, she taught Jazzercise classes at night. I remember her pink leg warmers, draped over the rocking chair in her bedroom. I know, when she looks at her four daughters, something pulls at her. Short with blocky thighs, wide feet, our faces often void of expression, we are not what she expected. “I don’t know how you all became so artistic,” she mused to me once.
I see traces of her in our branch manager, Mira, who asked if I could perform some additional tutoring during the morning hours. “No,” I said. “Actually I just signed up for a gym membership and that’s the only time I can go.”
“That’s fine,” she said, strolling off.
I had tried other times to say no, but it never worked. I always ended up giving in, agreeing to be the chaperone for a field trip to the art museum, or subbing for the debate class. Tell her that you are trying to lose weight, and she’ll never bother you again.
I’d heard there were schools in South Korea that kept scales and mirrors in the hallways, and was grateful Mira’s wasn’t one of them. In some ways, however, the students filled that void, informing you in the middle of class that there was a pimple on your cheek, your hair looked strange, or you had gained weight. In their culture, this is not rude. It is like performing a service. If you look bad, you should do something about it. They were also just as quick to point out when you looked good, or somehow bizarrely do both, like when one of my Korean friends said I looked nice and then added “What happened?” Initially this unnerved my American sensibilities, but now I prefer it. It is not as passive-aggressive, and I come from a long line of midwestern passive-aggression, raised on a strict diet of guilt, shame, and corn. When I talk to my mom I always make it a point to off-handedly mention my exercise regime. I know she is baffled by the idea of gyms, people driving somewhere, and, even worse, paying, to work out, but in Seoul you had little choice. “It’s not like the country,” I told her. There were no buckets to carry, no sheep to wrestle to the ground.
“You have a pretty nose,” a young girl, English name Eve, told me, even though I don’t. I just have a nose with a bridge, which many Koreans lack.
It is easy to like teaching English in South Korea. The younger students gaze at you, dreamy-eyed, follow you around the room, fight to be the ones who sit next to your desk. For some, you are their first foreign teacher. They raise their hands just to say that they love you.
In the hallways during break time, my girls form a semi-circle around me and my partner Todd, another teacher at the same school, pummeling us with questions.
“After you marry, where you go on tour?”
“You have baby?”
“Do you like nuts?”
“What’s your favourite colour?”
During the last hour of class, we often did a Critical Thinking Project. One day they had to write a speech detailing who they would be if they could be anyone.
“Let’s brainstorm,” I sang, teacher-voice in full swing. “Who do you want to be?”
They were wound up by this point, howling with laughter, standing on their chairs, screaming. Six girls wrote speeches giving distinct reasons why they wanted to be me.
I want to be a Megan Teacher because she very pretty.
Megan Teacher is very smirt.
She teach me nice.
She doesn’t angry many times.
Hee Sun, a student who chose to go by her Korean name instead of picking an English one, thrust her project into my hands. “Don’t read it until I’m at my home!” she shrieked, and ran out the door.
If you are a good teacher, you will be loved no matter where you teach in the world. This is part of what a classroom does, after all: create a mood for idolatry. Think of the way a lecture hall is designed. How can you not see that floor as a stage? In Korea, the experience is heightened even more because Koreans are hungry to learn English. My students thought I was brilliant because I could watch CNN and understand what was happening.
“You understand the whole time?” Scarlett asked, floored.
“Yeah,” I said. “Every word.”
But there are other reasons they love you, reasons that pierced me, made me suck my breath in. One day when I was checking homework, Susan patted her cheeks. “Teacher,” she said. “Your face very nice. Very white.”
“Thank you, Susan.”
I grew up in Ohio on a farm, the same one my mother worked on that has been in our family for six generations. Early on, I learned education was critical. “You have a job,” she told us. “You’re a student.” As a result, we didn’t have nearly as many chores as other farm kids during the school year. Sometimes, when questioned about the amount of work we must have to do, what with tending to all the crops and livestock, I lied about how early we had to wake up. It was what people wanted to hear because farm life is romantic to outsiders. I was aware of this, even in elementary school. In reality, I spent most of my time studying and working on school projects. In the summer, we baled hay and took care of our 4-H animals, but I still had plenty of time to read my young adult novels.
It is only now, years later, that it occurs to me why we were told to focus so heavily on our education instead of manual labor. I used to think it was because she didn’t want us to struggle like she did in school, but I’m not so sure anymore.
“We aren’t as smart as boys,” Jeung Eun once told me in a tone so matter-of-fact she could have been discussing rare species of birds.
“Don’t say or think that again,” I said, trying to remain calm, succinct, not scare her by launching into a rant or reading Hillary Clinton’s Wikipedia page. This was the master’s class, the highest level offered at the academy. All of the students were female.
She shrugged. “We just aren’t good at the things they are.” We had been reading Lord of the Flies and I asked what the book would be like if the characters were girls. Everyone agreed they would die of starvation since they wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves.
“Women,” I began, and took a deep breath, “are so smart. We can do anything we want.”
They all stared at me, silent, trying to figure out if we were still talking about the novel. Because their English is limited, I have to pick my words carefully. I pretend that I’m standing before a bin of apples at the supermarket, searching for the ones with the fewest blemishes, the ones that will be easiest to eat.
“Do you understand?” My voice so low I was almost whispering.
Everyone nodded, but I knew they were just doing what they were told, the same way they did when told they were overweight, or the way they told themselves when they watched the newest music video from Girls’ Generation, a South Korean k-pop group consisting of eight impossibly slim women.
They had a hard time articulating themselves. Usually they just stared at me, blinking, not used to someone probing for opinions and personal thoughts. The attention also made them nervous, and then I felt guilt for making their day harder. How can you not understand? their dark eyes said. Or, even worse: How can you ever understand?
In South Korea, you can shop in the middle of the night on the side of a mountain. Koreans work and go to school all day, so late night shopping is a treat, especially for daughters and mothers.
They love it, and so did I.
My hips didn’t stand a chance in pants designed for a typical Asian woman, but I loved looking at the matching sets for couples, shirts riddled with broken English, and, my favorite, though I definitely did not need it: padded underwear. Koreans streamed around me and my Heartland amble, the women so beautiful it was arresting. At the height of winter, they still wore black skirts, black heels, black stockings. They shopped quickly, perfectly, in and out of a boutique before I could even translate a price tag. I had to learn when I shopped for moisturizer to buy the kind that wouldn’t whiten my skin. In America, I was often teased for the pale skin that came with my red hair. In Korea, it was one part of the standard beauty package.
Another teacher subbed for me when I was on vacation. Petite with blond hair, blues eyes, raised in Massachusetts, schooled in southern California, her face bright with sharp, American angles, one of my students, Sofie, was mesmerized by her.
“I look at you,” Sofie told her, “and I want to be white.”
I can’t, for obvious reasons, say precisely what it is that makes such pale skin desirable to my young students and so many others. I only lived in South Korea for a year, and I’m just another white girl, able to pass through a country, a life, with ease because of the color of my skin, a fact that disgusts me. Some will tell you that the reasons models are whitened to ghostly shades and why people, male and female, sometimes use dangerously high doses of skin lightening creams has more to do with class than race, pointing out the long history of peasants baking in the fields while nobility luxuriated inside, away from the sun. I struggle to see, though, how this is better, nor do I think it is the whole story.
Once while sitting outside a busy art museum in Seoul, a Korean mother looked at me and said, in perfect English, she was jealous of me. “Everything is so easy for you,” she said, before looking away. “That must be nice.”
Here’s the thing, the awful truth, about what I called the rampant misfiring of testosterone. Back then, I liked it. To me, it felt so harmless, so casual, I could bask in it. It was like I was finally being told, good job, you made it. You won.
At my first real job after graduate school, I was the youngest woman, and I loved that also. Single, childless, I practically strutted out of my office. Some of the other women were callous toward me, commenting about the sliced vegetables I ate during faculty meetings.
“Oh, look at Meg,” one would groan, popping open a bag of Doritos. “Eating something healthy again.”
All of this brand new to me, the perpetual middle child, I was convinced no one had ever noticed me before. I drifted through my youth, oblivious, faintly aware that men existed, but more concerned with writing my rhyming poetry, centered down the page of a Microsoft Word document. When someone finally did look at me, I didn’t care that I was being objectified.
Someone should have grabbed my shoulders, told me to wake up. Don’t you realize how little it takes to impress a man? You’re a woman. That’s all it takes. That’s it.
If you ride a bus through South Korea, you’ll take in countless ads for plastic surgery. In a 2009 survey, one out of every five women in Seoul between 19 and 49 said they had undergone some form of plastic surgery. When I first arrived here, I was appalled at the bluntness in the advertisements, the before-and-after images of young girls, barely dressed, showing off their newly arranged jaws or double eyelids.
I didn’t just live in Seoul, either. I lived in Gangnam, one of the richest districts in Seoul, brought to fame by Psy and his beloved “Gangnam Style.” I walked up and down those streets everyday, watching women shop with one eye while the other one, covered in bandages, healed from surgery.
“America is no different,” Rachel said. “Korea is just more upfront about it.”
She is right. In America, we make people feel bad if they try too hard to look beautiful, cooing to one another that looks don’t matter. In South Korea, everyone, even the children, already know that’s a joke.
One of my friends, a young woman from New York who was also teaching in the Korean school system, opted for a surgery that sucked the fat out of her middle and shot it into her breasts. The doctor looked her up and down before he approved her for the operation. “Good,” he said. “Two birds, one stick.”
I handed Jennifer a chocolate candy for a reward and she turned her head away, held up her hand to stop me. “No, teacher,” she said, staring at the wall. “I’m on a diet. Do you know how many calories are in those?”
Jennifer was in sixth grade. If she laced her arms above her head, I could lift her from the ground like she was a bucket of water. I learned very quickly that she asked me if I thought I was pretty because she did, in fact, think that I was. But it doesn’t take much to impress them. Once I caught a group of girls staring at a silhouette of a woman on the cover of a textbook. “Teacher, look how pretty she is,” Vicki whispered.
“How can you tell?” I asked, fearful but curious as to what they could possibly identify when all you could see was a shadowy figure perched before a computer.
Vicki tapped the woman’s nose.
Of course. How did I not guess they would be mesmerized by her nose, the way it jutted from her face at a clean right angle? Even though it depressed me, it was not surprising that little girls were obsessed with appearance. What scared me, though, was the range of their obsession, how young they were when it started.
“I weigh myself in my room every morning so I know my heavy,” Nancy, a girl with legs as wispy as a pair of saplings, wrote in an essay. “In the past, I was very fat, and my sister was very skinny. I always had a stress about that. I couldn’t eat what I want to, because my parents said not to eat. They said I’m too fat to eat more. Sometimes I cried because I’m fat. When I grew up to third grade I started to exercise. Someday I weight more, that day I exercise more.”
Mira told me I needed to be more strict. I needed to yell, louder and with more frequency, so the students knew I was angry. I nodded as she told me this in her office during my evaluation. Yes, of course, you’re right. I am too nice. But I will never change. I remember being a child and the fears I had throughout school, and my educational career was nothing compared to theirs. How can I yell at Nancy, who jumps rope in her bedroom if she put on an extra kilogram? Or Hallie, who wrote the answers to the vocabulary test on her hand because she didn’t want her mother to beat her if she failed again?
“Come here, Hallie,” I said to her in the hallway during break time, and took her by the wrist. “What’s on your hand?”
Her lip started to tremble. She was just a girl.
“It’s okay.” I crouched in front of her, like I was taking her order at a restaurant. She didn’t know that I wasn’t going to tell on her. I just wanted her to wash the answers off her hand so her mother wouldn’t see them.
“Scrub your hand very hard,” I told her, mimicking the action on my own hand that I wanted her to do. “Very hard, so you can’t see the words anymore.”
She was crying, but she went into the bathroom to do as I instructed.
Next week she failed the test, but she didn’t cheat.
“My mother is going to beat me,” she informed me and the rest of the class.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s not your fault.”
I wonder if my mother had visions of her sons working the fields, knowing what to do when the tractors broke down. Did she want to call them all in to supper, not be the one still being called in to supper, this time by her daughters, instead of her mother, like when she was a child? She did have one boy, her first. At my worst, I let myself think that’s why she kept having children: to get her field of sons.
Everyone wants sons, after all. As a child, I idolized my parents. In my mind, they were the Ohio versions of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. I believed they were different from the masses, that they didn’t subscribe to the popular belief that boys are better, stronger. But with a son’s ability to carry on the family name and traditionally make more money, I cannot blame my parents, or anyone else. I am two and a half months pregnant, and hope for a son as well, but I like to think my reason is different: I want his life to be easier.
In some ways, being an introvert in Korea worked for me. Since I don’t speak Korean, a lot of my days were quiet. No small talk. No strangers came up to me telling me to smile or ask me what’s wrong, or if they did, I couldn’t understand it anyway. When I ran in to someone I knew, like the janitor at our school, I just bowed my head and moved on. Such was all anyone expected of me.
In other ways, I stood out far more than I’ve ever wanted to. The students called me “Yellow Teacher” because they claimed I had gold hair, even though I told them in America we labeled it red.
“Teacher,” they began, looking at me with pity, as if I never learned my colours. “That no red.”
One day I straightened my hair and when I walked in to our class, Matthew looked up at me, startled. “Teacher, where all your rounds go?”
Forced to stare at me for hours, they noticed everything, even the smallest changes. Rachel warned me that if I wore make-up, I had to wear it everyday. They would notice if I didn’t, maybe call me soju-face, say I look like their dad after he drinks too much.
The students love you, but, like a parent, they are hard on you. They expect a lot, think we know every tidbit about the English language, when in reality some of them probably know more than us because we are so used to speaking English the rules have faded, if we ever even learned them to begin with.
“Teacher, what’s the word for old water that moves in a tree?”
“Teacher, what’s the word for the air inside potato chip bag?”
They were never satisfied when I told them English is not like Korean, that those words don’t exist and never will. That English is a maze of slang, arbitrary rules, idioms, and nuances. I stood in front of them and turned my palms up, this time them asking me why? And all I could do was shrug and say that’s just the way it is.
We held a workshop at my university in Missouri. We talked about what it’s like to be a new teacher, and how you can exhibit authority in the classroom. I brought up the time a student called me Cupcake.
“What did you do?” the woman running the workshop asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
I can still see that student’s face, hear his laugh. He thought he was being so funny, entertaining his friends in the class, by referring to me that way. He kept saying it. Cupcake. Hey Cupcake. But I didn’t look at him. I didn’t even break from my lecture.
“By ignoring him, he eventually stopped and just looked foolish,” I continued. “I didn’t want to give him any attention, because that’s what he wanted.”
The woman nodded slowly. She was a tall, stunning lesbian with long grey hair, and I envied the easy authority that radiated from her. “That’s really smart,” she told me. Later, she sent me an email, thanking me for my contribution. I carried her praise and assurance with me for years, believing I had done the right thing because she told me that I did.
In my mind, my mother occupies a genderless space. When she was a baby, her dad kept her with him outside while he worked, perching her on the back of a horse so he always knew where she was. When she got older and wanted to learn how to ride, her mother stayed inside with every curtain drawn because it made her too nervous to see her only child galloping in a circle around the house. Mostly in my grandpa’s hands, my mother was raised like a boy. She had the structured days that come with living on a dairy farm, full of demanding tasks. When my grandpa killed rats in the hay loft, he would toss them down to her. She was in charge of stabbing them with a pitchfork to make sure they were dead.
At the same time, my grandma also taught her how to sew and together they made all her clothes. This was my mother, fully skilled, a model of self-sufficiency. On the outside, she was hardened and athletic, running her barrel horses at the county fair. When she walked inside and took her boots off, she was in her mother’s world. I can’t see her this way, quietly stitching. It’s too still, too slow. To me, she is always moving, running, on the brink of fighting. A dentist once told her that she brushes her teeth too hard. “Like a man,” he said. And it’s true. I watched one time and saw a snowstorm take place in her mouth.
For years I grappled with her complexities, confused as to why she still didn’t seem comfortable with her identity. Why must she always push herself to the point of exhaustion? Why didn’t she ever let anyone else help her? Why did she eat so little? But I understood after one story, brief and unprompted, about the massive, sliding wooden doors she has to pull shut at her sheep barn every night.
“I told my dad they were too heavy,” she said. “And he said I wasn’t worth my salt.”
There it was. Worth my salt. My grandpa has been dead for twenty years, but those words still weigh on her with the same bulk as those ancient, crumbling doors she has to tug across a rusty glider to protect her herd.
Eve sat right by my desk, close enough to touch my hand while I typed so she could get my attention.
“Teacher, you go on diet this week?”
“No way, Eve.” I’d been teaching for 10 months. I didn’t even break from typing my attendance notes.
“Mm,” she nodded.
Eve may or may not have thought I was fat, but this kind of question was just a question from a child. She could just have easily asked if I was a good swimmer or if I’ve ever killed a man. Still, I decided to make this one of my lessons. It was just the two of us in the room, waiting for class to start.
“I like to eat,” I said, turning to her. “I like to eat a lot.”
“Me, too,” she said, as though she had never said it before.
It looks like I am telling this to Eve. Many of my friends that moved to South Korea from other countries quickly developed some form of eating disorder, limiting the number of raisins they ate in the morning and signing up for overpriced Hot Yoga sessions. Older and married, I fancied myself immune to the culture’s strict definition of beauty, but I was barely different from Nancy, weighing herself every morning in her bedroom. Sometimes I long to call myself out, to stand up in front of my friends and say I hate my body just as much as everyone else. My confidence is an act, I’ll say. I can’t stand the way I look. I’m just pretending to be strong.
On my last day of work, I stood by the door and hugged my girls before they ran down the hallway. Other teachers had told me to lie to them, to not tell them I was leaving and just end the class like any other day, but I couldn’t do it. They were lied to all the time, and I wanted to be honest with them. During the last 20 minutes of class, I told them to draw me a picture. All of them took that to mean they should draw pictures of me. They sat me on a desk with instructions to hold still.
It is common for foreigners, waygookin, to stay in South Korea for years, much longer than me and my partner, Todd. Some never leave. Men, especially those who are tall and white, often get asked if they model. Todd was told he looked like Jake Gyllenhaal. When my sisters visited, we got swarmed by a group of Koreans while hiking. At the top of the mountain, in the midst of a summer windstorm, they closed in on us and demanded we take pictures with them. The cluster grew bigger and bigger. Eventually, I couldn’t see my sisters anymore. Then I couldn’t see the sky. Cameras blazed. Their hands were all over us. We loved every minute of it.
I followed the directions from my students and sat motionless, watching them sketch out a woman’s face. All of them were drawing me the same way: a small face with wide eyes, nose like a ski ramp, angular chin, blond hair.
“Teacher, you have yellow crayon? Don’t move. I get.”
If a student called me Cupcake today, I would halt my lecture. I would stare right at him and start walking toward him in silence. By the time I got to him, my right hand would be level with his throat, and I would wrap it right under his chin, so when I brought my face down to his, he couldn’t look away.
“Fuck you,” I’d whisper, tightening my grip at his neck, because I’m tired of boys making me feel like I can’t breathe.
Meg Thompson is a writer and stay-at-home mom. She has taught English in the United States and South Korea. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Modern Farmer, This Land Press, and McSweeney's. She has a chapbook of poems, Farmer, from Kattywompus Press. This year she was a finalist for the Key West Literary Seminar Emerging Writer Awards.