Tuesday, September 06, 2005

two deep bows

Earlier today, before the wisdom tooth extraction, I had to handle a student complaint based on a cosmic misunderstanding of an exercise we did on Monday.

The student in question now attends my morning Level 2 conversation class. Somehow, she got it into her head that our class was going to perform a play. I have no fucking clue how she came to this conclusion, but she apparently spread the meme to a couple of her equally confused classmates, and convinced herself that she didn't want to be doing a play. To make matters worse, she decided to whine to her previous teacher, whom she adores. Said teacher approached me about the problem, and even questioned whether the exercise I was doing was appropriate.

This annoyed me. When my students talk shit about other teachers (and it's inevitable that some student will trash somebody), I always defend the teacher at the expense of the student's complaint. I feel that teacherly solidarity is important; our job is often hard enough as it is without us being at each other's throats. So it was surprising and disappointing that this teacher chose to question me instead of suspending judgement and getting the full story.

The game we played in class was called "The Overloaded Lifeboat." It's an activity that involves discussion and decision-making skills in a potentially emotional environment. I told the students at the beginning of the activity: "This game has actually made people cry." It's true.

The game's scenario is simple. Students are placed into groups of six or seven. Each group imagines it's in a lifeboat after the Titanic has sunk. Unfortunately, the boat is overloaded and one person has to get off. That person will likely die a Leonardo DiCaprio-style death, freezing in the ice-cold ocean.

To remove the emotional immediacy and make this task more game-like, I gave the students a list of roles from which to choose: housewife, famous actor, hated politician, 90-year-old grandmother, five-year-old girl, etc. Students were to pick different roles for themselves, then, in those roles, come to an agreement about who had to leave the boat.

Students took to the task with gusto and the room was filled with animated discussion, and not a little laughter.

"I'm an old grandmother, it's true, but I haven't seen my son in 50 years and I wanted to see him one more time before I die."

"You're an evil politician! Everyone hates you! You should get off the boat!"

"Well, I think we can throw the five-year-old girl out. Her parents can make more children."

You get the picture. It was marvelous: the game made for a noisy classroom, which is what every language teacher wants. In Korea, the danger is always that the students will be sullen and silent despite our best efforts to coax utterances out of them. Task-based, directed activities usually work well with East Asian language learners (and others, of course). The lifeboat game offers a clear task, a concrete result, and enough dialogical subtext for the students to chew over the "whys" of what they've done.

At the end of the activity, I asked each team whether they'd come to a decision. Each team did so, and we reviewed, as a class, the reasons why so-and-so was to be sacrificed. More laughter as the various teams heard each other's rationales for chucking someone.

Because all the teams performed the task I required of them, I'm suspicious about this girl's claim that "several people" were confused. Not a single group failed to deliver the asked-for result-- including that girl's group.

After I spoke with the teacher who relayed the complaint, the student herself appeared in my office. She insisted that she'd heard I was planning on making the students perform some sort of play. She further complained she didn't want to act or do role playing. "I can't be a five-year-old girl," she whined. "I'm not five years old!" At this point I'd pretty much written the student off as a spoiled, selfish brat. If she seriously believed I was going to refashion my lesson plans-- which seemed to be working for the other 23 students in the room-- then she'll be in for a serious shock in the coming weeks. I don't cater to whiners, especially when they're telling me that they're not willing to participate in role-playing activities, which are a staple of the language-learning curriculum.

The student wasn't happy with my bluntness. "You can't imagine what it's like to be five years old? You have no imagination?" I asked with a smile. I told her to keep her mind open and to make an effort in the classes ahead. She said, "OK, I'll study hard."

Then she stepped back and bowed low and formally.

I knew, at that moment, that she was saying Fuck you.

Korean students don't engage in the usual Korean formalities with their Western teachers unless the teacher seems to give off that "vibe." My students generally say goodbye by cheerily waving, shouting, "Bye, Kevin!" or "Bye, Teacher!", and bouncing away. The bow this student gave me was a message. If she believed I didn't pick up on it, she was wrong.

A little while later, I told my colleague I thought the girl was a princess and that I wouldn't lose any sleep if she left my class. I was sincere about that. I also talked to the main office about the problem and asked one of the receptionists-- who was in the same class-- whether she'd felt confused by my instructions. She said what I expected: no. She even turned to a coworker and explained the lifeboat game in Korean. Obviously, she understood the game thoroughly enough to explain it.

Not long after that, I found myself on the subway, trundling toward my date with orthodontic destiny. On the Line 4 train, a stooped old man shuffled slowly down the center aisle, baseball cap in hand, begging for money. I was at the extreme end of the train. When he reached me, I dug into my wallet and gave him some change. The man stopped shuffling, looked me in the eyes, said "Thank you" in Korean, and bowed low and formally before turning around to renew his begging.

A young, spoiled girl gives me a deep bow. An old beggar gives me a deep bow. How completely different was the content of those two, seemingly identical courtesies.


1 comment:

  1. Ah, the coldness through formality. I hate that. If you hate someone let 'em know for heaven's sake. I've heard there is a lot more of that in Japan. I've heard from friends who have studied and lived there that husbands and wives will actually fight in high form to place barriers between themselves telling the other person "I don't want to let you close to me right now." If the couple upstairs from me is any indication it's mostly low for when the Koreans go at it.



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