Kyung bumped into Anna again eight years later in the auditorium of an English-language kindergarten. Kyung and her son had prepared for a year to get him admitted here. She had a Korean American tutor visit their home three times a week to coach him for the reading and writing exam. A few days before the exam, her son got a runny nose. His snot turned yellow and his fever wouldn’t break. Kyung decided against medicating him. The antihistamine in cold medicine was known to inhibit the brain’s waking function and cause drowsiness. She could always take him to a pediatrician after the exam. Kyung was aware that as she went from thirty to thirty-eight, she’d learned to discern what was more important and act on it swiftly. She knew if she didn’t act, she’d have to resolve things later and the work would fall squarely on her shoulders. She almost jumped for joy the day she heard her son was accepted into the kindergarten. She called her husband straight away but couldn’t get through. The nurses’ aide told her he was in the middle of a procedure. Her husband’s clinic focused on laser hair removals lately. She didn’t know exactly how these procedures went. Probably, they trimmed the bushy hair on the spot in question, applied anesthetic cream, and then used the laser. She’d occasionally picture her husband raising a stranger’s arm and tweezing the dark fuzz from her damp armpit one strand at a time, but she’d hurriedly shake off that image.
Korea had no official term for English-language kindergartens. Strictly speaking, the kindergarten her son was to attend was the kindergarten division of an English-language cram school. Only English was used there. Everybody knew this already, but the director, an Ivy League alumnus, stressed this point again at the Parent Orientation. The teachers, the nutritionist at the cafeteria, the woman at the information desk, even the director’s personal assistant, everybody spoke only English. They had a three-strike policy. If the children were caught speaking Korean in the classroom, corridor, restroom, or gym, they were given a warning. If caught twice more, they had to apologize in writing. No exceptions were made. The director used the expression “kick out” instead of “expel.” He said that two students were kicked out both last year and the year before that for this very reason. He said his heart had ached to do this.
Of course, the kids did nothing wrong. It’s just that it’s against our policy. He spoke rapidly in English and the deputy director standing beside him interpreted his speech into Korean.
Kyung couldn’t make any sense of the Korean, let alone the English. The auditorium was too hot. It felt around thirty degrees inside, and she was wearing a mink coat. Her mother had gifted her that knee-length silvery fur coat when she didn’t receive a proper wedding gift from her husband’s family. Today was the first occasion when she’d meet the other parents. Winter was when clothes revealed status most blatantly. The coat was the most expensive piece of clothing in her wardrobe. She realized her mistake when she opened the auditorium door and walked in. No one was wearing fur. She finally had to admit the enormous coat wrapped around her was out of fashion. Her shoulders slouched. She looked for an empty seat and finally squeezed herself into the middle of the front row. The orientation started soon. She missed the chance to remove her coat and had to sit there for an hour wearing it.
The orientation was a somber affair. The subjects were introduced one by one, followed by the required textbooks. The head teacher took the mic and proclaimed that by the time the kids graduated they’d read articles meant for grade four or five students in the US. The parents were quiet. Perhaps they thought the target was set too low. Then it was time to introduce the teachers. They were called in turn. The native speakers took to the stage first. They were all white. One source of pride for the kindergarten was that all of their foreign teachers were North Americans and held bachelor’s degrees in English education. They introduced themselves briefly. Following them, the bilingual co-teachers, called “licensed teachers,” were introduced in turn. Thirty in total, they were all young women, and all Korean Americans. They too spoke in English. Next was the turn of the TAs. Wearing what appeared to be a uniform of matching white piqué T-shirt and yellow-green apron, the TAs swarmed to the stage. Around ten people. They were all young women as well. Most English-language kindergartens hired native speakers alongside bilingual Korean teachers. Some places also had TAs only to take care of the kids. The TAs mostly chaperoned the kids on the school bus, accompanied them to the bathroom, washed their hands, and fed them.
We’re different from other places. That was what the director said at the consultation. The children can be distracted if extraneous people are present in the classroom.
She nodded in the confusion of the moment.
So we have the TAs on standby in the corridor, he added.
When she asked if they were there the whole day, he said it was only natural. He told her she needn’t worry because the TAs didn’t talk to the kids unless spoken to first, but she didn’t understand what she had to worry about in the first place. As she was leaving after the consultation that day, she spotted the TAs in the distance. They looked like inanimate objects dotting the long, quiet corridor. They stood there, hands clasped in front, shoulders erect, legs decorously straight, unswayed by earth’s gravity.
The TAs descended from the stage slowly in single file. The girl third in line from the front looked faintly familiar. Kyung furrowed her brow. The girl’s hair was cut short and the makeup was heavier, but she could tell it was her. It was Anna.
Like any other English-language kindergarten, here too the kids were called by their English names. Kyung decided on Jamie for her son’s name. Jamie’s class had ten kids in all and was assigned a Canadian homeroom teacher, a Korean American co-teacher, and Anna as the TA. Kyung and Anna greeted each other at the parent and TA meet-and-greet. Anna also looked surprised to see her. Surrounded by other mothers, they couldn’t show they knew each other, and besides they couldn’t talk in Korean anyway. In a few days, the notice board in the front of the classroom was covered with the names and photos of the homeroom teacher, co-teacher, and the kids. Anna didn’t have her name o...
Jeong Yi Hyun has published five novels, three short story collections, and two essay c0ollections. Her first novel, Sweet City of Mine, was adapted into the TV series My Sweet Seoul. She and Alain de Botton wrote the two-volume Foundation of Love that deals with issues of love, marriage, and family. She has received the Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award and Hyundae Literary Award. Her books have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Thai.