I’ve been asked to judge a speech competition hosted by the Gunsan Municipal Offices. I have no details of the actual competition apart from a date, time and the fact that one of the third grade (Korean) English teachers at my school will also be judging this competition this afternoon. With this in mind, I dress smartly in a black dress, heels and suit jacket in order to look as professional as possible.
My morning classes pass fairly slowly since the students are currently using the lessons to prepare for the upcoming school festival. While Mr Jeong and NZ1 talk about an interesting article in the latest issue of Time magazine, I attempt to mark student journals while actually watching the students practise. The conversation is still taking place as we all walk back to the main building from the English Lab. I notice a student in front of me is limping slightly but I don’t recall seeing anyone being injured during the lesson. She struggles to tell me what happened so turns to Mr Jeong to ask for a translation: She has a blister on her foot which she proudly repeats to me after Mr Jeong translates the word. I respond with “And in Korean, it’s called…?” which leads to a short, impromptu pronunciation lesson in a very cold corridor.
Mr Jeong then explains the logic behind this new vocabulary I’ve only just acquired and we then start talking about another word that he taught me two weeks as well as acquiring vocabulary in general. It’s in the middle of this conversation that one of the older Korean teachers at my school approaches us. He greets us all, we greet him and then he turns his attention to me, looks me up and down and manages to communicate today’s English statement to me: “Sarah, your figure looks very nice today. It makes me so happy. Thank you.” These two sentences probably only take him about two or three minutes to say but I’m embarrassed beyond belief. Mr Jeong and NZ1 seem to just be staring at the ground, smiling, uncertain of where to look while I attempt to hide my embarrassment. This particular teacher regularly talks to me in his rather limited English but everything he says is always a compliment of some sort: It’s flattering, good for my ego and sometimes, like now, rather embarrassing, but I know he means well so it’s easily forgiven. Mr Jeong then proceeds to tell me how admirable and impressive it is that I’m trying to learn Korean and I once again find the colour in my cheeks increasing with embarrassment so I excuse myself with empty protests of work to finish before the speech competition.
There are three teachers from my school who are involved in the competition which apparently involves English, Japanese and Chinese. When we arrive at the public library, we’re soon given the pertinent information necessary to judge the contestants – and it’s all in Korean so Erin has to translate the questions and notes for us. Before we know it, the mayor is welcoming us all and introducing all of the judges for the three languages, saying other things myself and the Canadian judge don’t understand and then we’re being divided into our different sections. We have 13 contestants for the English part although several of them don’t actually arrive for the competition. It’s more of a speaking competition than a speech contest and within 90 minutes, we’re finished, 100 000 won richer for an easy afternoon, and still finishing our working day early.
I head back to Gunsan to put down my school things before going to Paris Baguette where I’m going to attempt to order 75 sweet potato pastries for the staff at my school and hopefully be able to have them delivered on Christmas Eve which is the last school day of the semester. One of my students has already translated my request into Hangeul and I’ve been practising my pronunciation all day. Unfortunately, I still need to read most of the writing but I’m fairly confident about the speaking part.
When I arrive at the bakery, I quickly buy the few items I need and head to the counter where I manage to indicate that I need something else. All three of the staff are standing at the counter and they look amused when I start reading my request, in Korean, which quickly distracts me and my self-confidence goes into sudden hibernation. I reluctantly hand over the page on which everything is written and they confirm that there won’t be a problem with my request. It’s only when they ask where in my school to deliver the order that I realise I’ve neglected one of the most crucial pieces of information. As I walk home, I send several fervent and silent prayers that the essential information has been understood but I’ll just have to wait until Friday to find out.