- onApril 4, 2017
- Vol.35 Spring 2017
- byJeong Yi Hyun
- Age of Benign Violence
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 or photo on the board. The name
Jamie was attached to the photo of Kyung’s son. He looked stiff in the photo. He didn’t adapt to new environments easily, but Kyung secretly believed it was because of a peculiar sensibility born of an inherent artistic bent. Unlike her hope that he’d improve, Jamie didn’t open up to the new kindergarten. The symptoms showed up as mutism. His homeroom teacher made an entry in English in his notes: No problems in intelligence or hearing, but won’t talk. The Korean co-teacher told her over the phone not to worry too much and suggested they wait and see. Though uncommon, she’d seen similar cases occasionally. The word “uncommon” pierced Kyung’s heart. It was a euphemism for “rare” and signaled the situation could worsen. Jamie’s behavior at home was no different from usual. He spent long stretches of time assembling LEGO or Magformers and giggled now and then while reading comics. But when she asked him about the kindergarten, he clammed up.
Kyung went to the mothers’ brunch gatherings. Not because she wanted to but because she was afraid Jamie would become the topic of discussion in her absence. The mothers freely discussed such things as that the level of the content being taught was lower than what they’d expected, the English of the guest teachers for art, music, and PE was unsatisfactory, or the school lunch menu had a worrying number of sausage or ham-based foods. A proposal about making hockey and soccer teams for the boys and a rhythmic gymnastics team for the girls came up as well. The Canadian homeroom teacher was rumored to be strict but, luckily, he was a capable teacher. The co-teacher was newly hired from another cram school and they were worried because she was yet untested. Anna wasn’t rated too badly, except for someone who complained she’d sent her kid home with his coat buttoned wrong. She was more affable and light-footed than the TAs of other classes, was patient while feeding the kids, and used the proper toilet paper after the kids had gone to the bathroom. Anna’s still a hard worker, Kyung thought to herself.
Jamie didn’t get better even after a month had passed. He didn’t utter a word of Korean or English at the kindergarten. He didn’t sleep until late at night and didn’t get up in the morning when she shook him, but he never expressed his reluctance to go to school. He often missed the school bus that came to pick him up in front of their home at eight thirty. Every morning, Kyung had to tear down the road in her car with Jamie in the backseat without even washing up or brushing his teeth. He didn’t speak in the car, either. When she looked in the rearview mirror to check if he was sleeping, he’d be staring out the window. She grew more worried. She hadn’t confided in anyone about his symptoms. Her husband would put all the blame on her. Her relatives or close friends would give her a few words of incautious advice but would be of no real help. She’d prepared herself to visit a pediatric psychiatrist or a child psychology center one day, but it was too early for that now. She wanted to delay that moment somehow.
The kindergarten kept telling her to wait and see. The homeroom teacher stopped sending the notes he used to write in English. She understood his predicament. He must not have anything particular to write about. The co-teacher called her once every four days to report on Jamie’s condition. She too didn’t have much to talk about. Once before finishing the call, she told her three kids from Jamie’s class had already received warnings for using Korean. She didn’t tell her their names but Kyung felt she’d tell her if she only asked. One of the kids had two strikes. In the co-teacher’s voice, Kyung sensed a nuance that she should consider herself lucky because her son didn’t face that trouble. After hanging up, Kyung resolved that if the teacher spoke to her about this again she’d email the director to complain she’d revealed personal information about other students and mocked her son.
One day, when she entered the kindergarten with Jamie, Kyung found the front desk empty. She held Jamie’s hand and stepped into the elevator. Classes were already in full swing. One, two, three, the TAs stood ramrod straight in the still corridor. They had similar builds and wore the same uniform, so it was difficult to tell Anna apart immediately. Anna saw them first. She smiled brightly at Jamie. She had no creases on her face. Jamie dropped Kyung’s hand and latched on to Anna. Anna quietly bowed to Kyung. Kyung returned the bow. Anna opened the class door. Jamie tamely followed her inside.
Getting hold of a TA’s contact details was difficult. If she asked at the kindergarten, they’d consider it strange. Kyung mulled over it for a while, then decided to check the mail in her inbox from long ago. She found a text file with the emergency contact numbers of the 37th batch of the Latin dance club. Names, both familiar and only faintly remembered, were arranged in a single row. Cho Anna. Anna’s number was also there. She tried it and heard the phone ring. Soon after, Anna picked up. Kyung didn’t know what to say, so she said she was Jamie’s mother.
Oh my god! Hello, eonni!
She couldn’t remember if Anna called her eonni, or sister, back then. But she was certain the two of them had never been together by themselves. She was a little disconcerted at being called eonni but didn’t exactly mind. It was much better than being addressed as “Jamie’s mother.” Anna was flustered at Kyung’s suggestion they meet outside. She said she wanted to but couldn’t because contact between parents and teachers was forbidden outside the school.
The homeroom teacher and co-teacher are contractually forbidden. Some parents ask them for private tutorials, you see. But as for us TAs, I’m not sure. I didn’t sign a contract.
Was Anna snubbing her in a roundabout way? Was she making Anna uncomfortable? Maybe. She hurriedly said she didn’t have an ulterior motive. She only thought it was amazing they’d run into each other again and wanted to meet up for coffee.
And there’s another thing. I’ll be frank. It’s because of Jamie.
She managed to say before her words trailed off.
You know the situation. I’m so worried. If this goes on, I think I’ll go raving mad.
She continued desperately.
I want to talk to you about Jamie. I don’t have anyone to share how I feel.
Translated by Agnel Joseph
Jeong Yi Hyun has authored four novels, four short story collections, and three essay collections. Her first novel, Sweet City of Mine (2006) was adapted into the TV series My Sweet Seoul. Her novel Foundation of Love: A Couple’s Story (2013) was part of a two-volume series exploring issues of love, marriage, and family, with Alain de Botton writing the second part.