I’ve always had a thing about getting up in front of people. Presentations, thesis defenses, group projects. Since elementary school I can remember dreading the moment when all eyes turned on me. Back then, in the throngs of my diagnosed-at-age-7 “anxiety disorder,” the feeling of horror in the pit of my stomach led to what felt like genuine physical pain. I’ve had to stand up and talk a lot since then, and while that feeling has waned significantly, it’s never really gone away. Various factors can influence the spectrum of comfort that will or will not accompany me on to the stage. Clean clothes, a good hair day (yes, I know how that sounds), and recently having shaved all help. Today I learned that what helps the most is having an ounce of fluid trapped in your left ear leaving you partially deaf.

Last weekend we all went to Haeinsa, a mighty Buddhist temple on the top of one of Korea’s endless small mountain ranges. My ears popped instantly and my head was in pain throughout. But it was nothing as bad as coming back to Jungwon University and having my ears stuffed so completely with fluid thanks to the altitude change that I could barely hear a thing. This has gone on now for four days, and was just as bad today when I taught my first class as it was the minute we arrived home.

Surprisingly, teaching Korean kids English class while half-deaf isn’t as hard as it sounds. Korean kids are usually quiet by nature when put on the spot and asked to read something aloud. They fear pronouncing the words wrong, especially in front of a native speaker. Whereas I may have been an ass at any other time and corrected a particularly egregious pronunciation mistake, being deaf left me with the sole option of smiling, nodding my head and saying “Very good! Good job!” and moving on to the next person. Ignorance really is bliss, and I plowed through the lesson speaking more loudly than I felt I needed to in order to compensate for the deafness, and barely registering any comments or sighs of boredom from the kids. Maybe my feeling that the class went well is misplaced, but I don’t really care.

Today’s lesson was about music genres. The class was advanced, so all the kids knew what genres were (one kid described them as “forms”) and had heard of all the genres I talked about (one girl, when asked to describe a characteristic of reggae, said the “beats were percolated”). A worksheet prompted them to tell the class where they’d heard it before, what it made them think of, and what elements characterized it. Play a music video, partner them up, and away they go. Sometimes a bit too far away. Korean children, if nothing else, are diligent workers. One of my favorite Korean words is yulshimhee (열심히 ), the word for diligently or eagerly. I always remembered it as “You’ll shimmy!”, doing a little dance because you’re so into your work. That describes these kids pretty well. Some were very nervous, in part, I think, because I stood pretty close to them when they read their answers. There was no other way to hear them (most of them talked so quietly I still couldn’t fucking hear them regardless). One boy stuttered answering a question and was clearly anxious, whereas he had been pretty laid back while my partner taught her class. But apparently it’s also because I’m a six foot white guy. According to the program leaders at orientation, white men command “the most respect” in the classroom, with Asian women commanding the least. My ETA partner is an Indian-American woman, and the class seemed to respect her just fine, so I’m not sure how much creedence I’ll give that stereotype.

One kid in particular loathed all forms of music besides classical and new age. He listed Peter, Paul & Mary as his favorite band. He couldn’t have been older than twelve. But he led to all sorts of jokes, and took them in stride. Every time we started a new genre I asked him what he thought and “I didn’t like it, too boring!” was always in there somewhere. The kids laughed, and so did I. I was lucky enough to fit my lesson into 47 minutes out of 50. Other ETAs have blown through their activities so fast they’ve had as much as twenty to thirty minutes of dead time left. Some play games, some have back up plans – and some have had to have our supervising teachers, there to evaluate us, fill in the rest of class. I guess I did all right.

But back to the fluid in the ear. Yeah. While it may make Korean class bearable, I also have three to four hours of Korean class a day. Being deaf doing listening exercises is not good. Our teachers talk only in Korean already – add to that losing half your hearing, and it’s a royal pain in the ass to understand the gist of a question being asked to you. The class looks at you and awaits a response. I don’t have one, because I don’t know what the hell she just said. Not fun. It looks like I’ll be taking a bus tomorrow or the next day to Cheongju, to see an ear specialist. How I’ll pay for this on $60 USD a week, I don’t know. I guess they’ll have to bill me. It’ll be worth it to hear again. But Korean class will never be the same.

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