Conversations With My Korean Teacher

(Credit: Jay P. Lee/Flickr)

Let’s face it, I am not really getting much better at speaking Korean, except when I’m drunk, when something magical happens and I just start full-on speaking Korean. Friend Alex witnessed this once and said it was rather disconcerting because before that, she had never once heard me utter a single phrase in Korean.

Despite my lack of progress, I still spend every Thursday afternoon with Lee Unkyung, the trusted private teacher to British, Australian and New Zealand diplomats, as well as a raft of foreign correspondents who have come through Seoul. I love Unkyung and count her among one of my closest Korean friends. She is the oldest of four daughters, so she knows what it’s like to deal with the sister dynamics she witnesses among my children each week. As my Korean has haltingly improved, our conversations about birth order and sister relationships have gotten (slightly) more nuanced.

She’s also a font of story ideas! Because we start each lesson with conversation practice, she ends up sharing interesting headlines or debates that are going on in Korean society that I often don’t know about yet. So helpful.

Today we talked about the standard Korean phrases that translate awkwardly into English, and vice versa. I often hear, “Have a good rest,” for example. Which seems odd as an English phrase. But she explained that 푹 쉬세요 (pook she-seh-yo) is something Koreans say to one another all the time. 

This happens in the reverse when you translate the English phrase “What do you think” into Korean, because in Korean, you don’t say “WHAT do you think” but instead “HOW do you think?” So she says it’s a dead giveaway that you’re translating an original English question from your mind when a speaker says “WHAT do you think” in Korean.

My favorite common Korean phrase is 마음에 들어요 (ma-oom-eh duhlauyo), which is understood to mean “it pleases me.” But if you want to be real literal about it, the phrase can translate as “It fits my heart exactly.” And what could be more lovely than that?

Mr. Fenney

My zero hour geography teacher in 11th grade was Mr. Fenney. Mr. Fenney — late thirties at the time — was a hipster in Texas, before hipsters existed. He liked to talk about Italian art films to high schoolers, explain why the colonists had completely fucked Africa for forever, and treated us teenagers as far more enlightened than we really were.

We were also basically never able to get a rise out of him for anything. One afternoon, after a particularly difficult exam that morning, I busted into his 7th period class and announced to the whole class of mostly strangers, is this the Europe exam?! “That test raped me in the ass this morning!” Mr. Fenney just sort of chuckled and then went about his test proctoring. (Side note: What was I even doing?)

As these things go, I don’t remember any of the book teaching that Mr. Fenney did. Just the asides and random tidbits about the world that he would teach us, like showing us how nonsensically Africa was carved up. And since we had to memorize some land masses and rivers after coloring unlabeled maps as homework, I might be able to identify Laos on a map today (maybe).

The most salient memory I have of Mr. Fenney is what he slapped up on the overhead projector on the first day of class. It was a quote by T.S. Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

It’s a famous T.S. Eliot missive, as I know now. But to my 17-year old self, this was revelatory. And it’s largely guided my life, it turns out. So I think of Mr. Fenney fairly often, and the esoteric — but crucial — impact he made on me. Thanks, dude. Sorry I was such a pain in the ass.