bathroom etiquette and personal space and how the two are very closely related

though only a month and a half have passed since i began my fledgling teaching career i have already run full steam into several awkward moments with my students. dynamic korea is a place with infinitely different notions regarding personal space than most countries i've been to; i.e. there isn't much to be had.

the first came not long after i started at seopyeong. the one that caught me on my walk home after school as i was stalled in an intersection looking for a hotspot to download a podcast insisted on touching my arms. he was prattling on about something or other and due to my lame korean at the time (not to insinuate my korean has since magically turned conversational) i could not tell him that i didn't understand what on earth he was on about. i gestured to him with my arms folded in an X across my chest, universal hangul for "No." he kept smiling and chatting and brushing my arm hair and seemed pleased to finally be able to talk without being interrupted. this carried on for a minute or two before the old folks in the neighbor hood began looking. nay, staring. i felt sharp darts in my back: every time i pulled away from the young boy he clung on tighter, touching my arms and pulling my non-iPod hand down to hold. after feeling the snare of stares from surrounding koreans i finally had to be rude and walk away from the kid as he was in mid sentence. i can only imagine the headlines in the local hofs and restaurants, did you see that giant white man? did you see how close he was with that child? well, i never...

about two weeks ago i was caught in the bathroom between classes. classic rookie mistake. the equivalent in the marines is volunteering when Gunny asks for a private to check out what's up over that there hill. that private, everybody knows, never comes back. so i was caught at the urinal when a few 2nd and 3rd grade boys came running in. they all started shouting hello at me presumably because they all have amnesia and forgot they had already done so every other time they saw me that day. it's cute when you're not in the middle of a transaction that requires more quiet space than stage time. i made the second mistake of replying to them and out came a half-cocked hello. if Gunny had heard it he would've made me a stretcher bearer thinking i'd lost all my nerve and gone all gutless on him. they started screaming and when i waved at them to go away they all came and gathered round. what i'd forgotten is that in korea, and most asian countries, what i know in western cultures as the "GO AWAY" hand gesture is actually "COME HERE." if this were a movie an adult would have walked by just as i was waving them all to go away and i would have comically lost my job. eventually i actually shooed them away, though and all was right with the world.

and then there was last week in one of my after school classes. as i was handing out worksheets to be completed two young boys got in a scuffle which ended with boy A laying boy B out, cold cocking him once and then giving him a right hook before i had the chance to get in between. once he regained his composure boy B reached out his hand to shake on it to settle matter. boy A's refusal to meet halfway seemed only to strengthen the initial physical wounds by bruising B's dignity: kid gets beat up then wants to shake hands on forgiveness and is shut down. a sad sight indeed.

but today was perhaps the strangest thing to happen between me and a the kids. i found myself bursting for a trip to the squatters (if you don't know, they're exactly what they sound like) around 12:15. lunch time is 12:20. thinking i could fit it in like the invincible bank robber feels like he can get in just that one last perfect heist i made a dash for it. but lo, disaster struck. a few boys were already in the bathroom and they were, both tragically and hilariously, the same motley crew as the urinal incident just two weeks prior. enter: shouting hello. knowing better this time i only nodded at them and kept moving briskly across the always-wet bathroom tile-floor to the opposite wall to gather my hurried wad of toilet paper from the wall dispenser before seeking the haven of a stall. one boy's voice stood out and he was no longer saying hello but actually talking at me in hangul. the rest of the boys had gone silent. i resisted for as long as i could until, at the very last moment before entering the safe womb of the squatter i turned to see what he was saying.

what spread before me was a scene more majestic than the last supper. more powerful than turandot. more suggestive than a PG-13 rated teen sex romp. the boys, five in total, had constructed a scene of what they presumed my next few minutes to include. two were on either side of the one in the middle, the one that was trying to get my attention, wildly pointing at him while giving me giant little kid cheek-to-cheek smiles. the one in the middle was in the squat position pointing at me and squeezing out what little vocabulary was in his english arsenal: teacher! son sang nim! teacher dookie?!

not knowing what else to do (i wasn't going to tell him no! teacher no dookie! because that's a lie) i just turned and locked the door as quickly as i could. not moments later, just as my afternoon's events began to unfold, there was a rushed knocking at the stall door. it shook and little boys laughed. i forcefully told them to go away. but why would they? they have no idea what "go away" means. all they heard was the panicked cry of a rookie teacher at his most vulnerable. a stupendous feat of psychological warfare the boys had raged. but they weren't done.

the door in the stall behind me shut and this made me nervous. not two nights previous i was out with a couple guys and one had brought a story of elementary boys hellbent on keeping him company in the bathroom. i had to believe it was a myth and that my worst nightmare was not about to come true. i braced myself with the kind of fortitude one reserves for life's most trying moments and looked up and behind me. a boy was climbing over the stall and looking down into mine laughing and waving and shouting hello. with very few options available i began yelling at them. i rushed. i got out of the stall and the kid was still on top of the dividing wall laughing. i very strongly told him to get down and this he seemed to understand. his friends were laughing and they all crowded around the sink because it was right next to the door and it was my next stop. they watched me wash my hands as though it seemed strange that a white man would wash his hands in their sink.

i turned to them, hands dripping wet and not necessarily clean for lack of soap. they shouted hello and all ran off down the hall cheering about their victory, their conquering of a fragile giant. a foreigner in a strange land.


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