I've been sitting on this story a week or so, letting it percolate. It was one of those things that wasn't so big, considering all of my experiences in Korea, yet is representative of the kinds of innocent cultural clashes that can occur here.
I take the bus to school. The bus stop is along a major thoroughfare so people often stop to give me a ride. Usually it's a teacher but on this one day it was a student's father, giving his son and another student a ride to school. They stopped and motioned me over. I got in and almost immediately the father, who looked to be not much older than me, was saying, "Everyday, everyday." He wanted to give me a ride everyday.
I have learned from experience that this kind of kindness is often a trap. Not like there's a hidden agenda but for every act of kindness you receive, you become beholden to that person in some way. This is doubly true when it's a student's parent. Teachers are expected to be paragons of moral virtue and any slip-up will result in problems not just for the parties involved but for the whole school. So you can understand why I got nervous when he told me, "Everyday." But I was trapped. I was in the car with him and two of my students. I had to say yes.
And so it was that I found myself leaving the house 15 minutes earlier everyday and getting a ride from this man, who owned an intestines-soup restaurant around the corner from my house. I would show up at the restaurant at 7:55, the time instructed to arrive. I would watch his son eat his breakfast, politely refuse a similar breakfast for myself, and then we would drive across town to pick up the other student and be dropped at school almost 30 minutes earlier than I needed to be there.
Aside from the change in schedule, things were going along fine until a few days in, when the usual probing (read: uncomfortably personal) questions and typical teacher treatment I was used to began to change. When the father found out I was close to his age, he started yelling, "Chingu ya!" ("Friends!") and switched from parent/teacher mode to drinking buddy mode.
I should mention here that what determines friendship in Korea is less shared experience than similarity in age. When even a one-year difference can preclude intimacy, the fact that you're the same age means you don't have to worry about who's junior or senior and can meet each other as equals. We weren't exactly the same age but it was close enough for him to go straight to bosom pals without—as we Westerners might prefer—earning it.
It started mildly enough, with jokes about how sleepy I looked and such. I was surprised at first. I'm used to this kind of teasing from my fellow teachers. I don't always like it, usually because there's a language barrier and humor is also very culturally specific, but they have earned the right to tease me. I rarely tease them back for a variety of reasons but I know them so I know their hearts are in the right place.
One morning I was sitting at a table, watching the son stab at his meaty soup with his chopsticks, when the father came right up to me, stuck his finger to within a few inches of my left eye, and said something in Korean. It's very rude to point in Korea, let alone stick your finger in someone's eye. I turned to the son, waiting for the translation. His son was only a first-year middle school student and his English, while not as bad as many, was not that great. His vocabulary was limited and he tended to over-rely on the "to be" verb, even sticking it in sentences that already had perfectly good verbs. He looked at me, thought about what his father had said, and translated, "Dog eye."
"I have dog eyes?" I asked, incredulously. Dogs are not animals of privilege in Korea. A common Korean insult is "dog baby," or as we might say, "son of a bitch." I turned to the father and said "dog eye?" in Korean to make sure he really did say that. He just laughed. The son quickly added, "Handsome!" but the damage was done. I had dog eyes.
Over the next few days it got worse. Korean men like to pretend they're angry. It's a joke, of course, but for someone who isn't used to it and can't understand what's being said, it sounds identical to real anger. Imagine sitting in a car. The man who is sitting one foot to your left is yelling at you in a foreign language. You assume he's not really mad but all you have to go on is the tone of his voice. The translation that arrives is garbled and heavy on the "to be" verb, if one comes at all.
I began to dread these morning rides. Why did I agree to this, I kept asking myself. I could feel my stomach knotting up as I was getting ready to go to school. I don't mind taking the bus, I would say. I don't like getting to school so early, I would justify.
On the last day of our carpool, while sitting in the car on the way to school, the father asked me if I had gone to see his daughter dance in the local Christmas pageant the night before. I really did want to go but in typical Korean fashion he only told me about it the morning of the event. When I said, "Busy," he started in on the anger thing. I knew it was coming. My stomach was already starting to hurt. All of the emotions I had been suppressing the past few weeks came out: "I don't know if you're really angry or joking," I said, the desperation ringing in my voice. His son translated and he clarified, "Joke, joke." I explained that in America we don't yell at acquaintances like that, to which he said something back in Korean in what I can only assume was meant to be a joking tone but sounded to me like sarcasm. No one spoke the rest of the ride.
I consulted with my co-teachers about what to do and my head co-teacher volunteered to mediate. I felt like a coward, having someone else fight my battle for me, but in Korea it's better for a mediator to handle things than for there to be a confrontation. He explained that Americans aren't comfortable with others helping them and that they like to do things by themselves. He didn't mention that I was offended. I still felt sick over the whole thing, especially since my students had been in the car, but it was over now. Almost.
A few days later the middle school vice principal called my co-teacher. Apparently the father came to him to find out what happened. He had been trying to lighten the mood and I had gotten offended. He was embarrassed and wanted to clear the air. My co-teacher never mentioned that the father had been rude and wasn't treating me like his son's teacher so the vice principal thought I should take rides from him again. But my co-teacher insisted this way was better.
I fully believe that the father was only trying to be funny. He wasn't trying to offend me. But in general, if you tease someone and they don't tease you back, or they laugh uncomfortably, it's pretty obvious they're not enjoying it. Had this situation happened in the US I would have deflected the blame by explaining to him that the time was inconvenient for me and refused the rides. But here, without the luxury of fluency, I could only get frustrated.
The person I truly feel bad for is the son, my student. He's probably the most embarrassed of all of us.