Learning English May Be Hazardous To Your Reputation

Learning English is serious business, in case you didn’t know. I got lucky since I got to learn the language immersively by living in the States, but that’s not to say that it didn’t take a few years of bumbling around and trying to figure stuff out. Unfortunately, that first part means that I embarrassed myself a lot while I learned. Actually, that second part too. Since they mean the same thing. But the point is, my early years here were filled with language-related incidents, most of which my memory back then must have decided to suppress. They were all part of a learning process, and I can have a laugh over the memories now. But you can imagine that it wasn’t so jolly for little me at the time.

I came to Washington during the summer of my third grade year, which means third grade had already finished across America. So I skipped half a year, totally without my knowledge, and started in the fourth grade in autumn. I remember feeling pretty cool for that. The first day of school was going well enough–my mom walked me all the way (we lived about five minutes’ walking distance away) and even sat in during class with a number of other parents. I liked my teacher, a kindly lady named Mrs. Ault, and thought the classmates were okay too. Then we had a little icebreaker (though I’m sure you never use that word with kids. What ice is there to break?), and during the instructions I heard the word “birthday”. I knew that word! It seemed that she would say all the months in order, and everyone who had a birthday in that month would raise their hand. (My birthday’s in August, so I had a little time to figure this out.) Then she would point to each person who raised his or her hand, and the kid would reply with some number. I was able to conclude that they were replying with the actual date of their birth. So I raised my hand when the teacher called “August”, and when it was my turn, I was able to triumphantly say “one” and feel good about my abilities of inductive reasoning.

My teacher didn’t seem so impressed, though; her expression turned rather curious, instead. If I had paid a little more attention to the numbers that everyone else was saying, I’d have noticed that they were all either nine or ten and thus realize that they were saying their age. I wasn’t embarrassed at having proclaimed that I was one year old to the class, though, because I didn’t figure it out until I thought about it at home later.

Things improved a little after a year of experience under my belt. Fifth grade was still dotted with a number of incidents, though, the most memorable of which is probably the rice debacle. The class was divided up into groups for a project that I can’t remember anymore. But it must have been some kind of crafts thing, because each member was assigned materials to bring from home. My material happened to be rice, and I was instructed to bring enough for the whole group to use. Oh hey, good news right? Not like I didn’t have tons of that at home.

At this point, I should tell you a couple things. First, the Korean language differentiates between two words for rice: “쌀” (pronounced “ssal”) and “밥” (“bap” with a long ‘a’), where the former is the grain in raw state and the latter is in cooked state. Second, the English language does not. Third, while I was learning English, I had this thing where if it was possible for me to understand something the wrong way, I generally would.

I went home and told my mom that I needed to bring, like, half a ton of bap on the next day for class. She thought something here was more than a little weird, but I was adamant that that was what I was told, because it was true. (Even though I thought that it was a tad bit odd too.) So mom ended up cooking a significant amount of rice that day, and it had to be packed into a plastic picnic basket for transport.  I walked into class the next morning with that big thing and set it down next to my desk for the first couple hours, until it was time for group work. Some of my friends were curious and asked if that was for lunch or something; I didn’t feel like explaining that it was for a project, so I just told them no. In retrospect, that must have have been confusing.

Imagine my groupmates’ surprise when I show up with lots of cooked rice and none of the raw rice that we actually needed. I don’t really remember what happened afterwards, but I think it involved a lot of languid laughing and kids trying to make me feel better. Oh, and that rice took a good while for my family to finish.

By the time I graduated from elementary school, I was fairly well versed in conversational English and most everyday expressions. What took a little more time to master, though, were cultural nuances. That was the reason for what happened in sixth grade. It was a Lion’s Quest class period: correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I believe it was sort of a citizenship development thing. The class took turns giving short presentations about what kind of behavior they would like to see and not see throughout the year. One of my “don’t want to see” things were hurtful gestures: for example, giving the finger. (Which, being in the sixth grade, one did see a respectable number of.) At that time, my understanding of the middle finger was that it was certainly an undesirable expression, but not quite at the level of taboo. I did my presentation, and when it got to that part, I thought I would show them an example of what I meant by hurtful gestures. What I mean is that I basically flipped off the entire class while my teacher was standing right next to me. Silence fell over the room for a few seconds, and to her credit, my poor teacher ended it with a terse “Thank you. But don’t actually show that, even as an example.”

Seven years later, I’m certainly bumbling around a lot less. Though sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be totally caught up. I’m sure that there’s something, some aspect of Americana waiting for me to mess up somehow and learn it, but that’s okay. I’ll just tell myself that I’m Americanized enough, I’m okay, I’m good to go. And that I’m still Korean at the same time. What an idea. If it feels like this conclusion is rushed, it’s because I took a whole another post and crammed it into the last two sentences here without a sufficient transition. So don’t worry, it’s not just you. I’ll write about that someday.

2 thoughts on “Learning English May Be Hazardous To Your Reputation

  1. The wierdest thing about this is that last time i went to visit Oakbrook I saw the class picture and mentioned that you were graduating. Mrs. Ault got all nostalgic and then told me she was amazed by how qiuet you were and how much you learned over the course of that one year.

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