A Failure to Communicate

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Last week I noticed that a student of mine was absent.  He had come to every class before but now suddenly stopped.

“Jae Yong?”  I asked all week, scanning the room.  Nothing.  Another red slash in the attendance book.

On Monday morning I rolled into class and called out the names as I always do.  Again, I got to his.

“Jae Yong?”  Silence.   “Where’s Jae Yong?  Is he sick or something?”

The handful of weary students in front of me shifted in their chairs and glanced at each other.  Finally, a young man in a baseball cap name Jung-oo spoke up:

“Uhm… teacher….  Jae Yong is dead.”

For a second I thought he was joking.  I’ve had many students joke that their missing friends are dead. I reflexively attempted a grin, but from the mood of the others I could tell that Jung-oo was serious.

“Dead?  Really?  ….oh man…  that’s… terrible.  What happened?”

“Car accident.”

Last week I noticed that a student of mine was absent.  He had come to every class before but now suddenly stopped.

“Jae Yong?”  I asked all week, scanning the room.  Nothing.  Another red slash in the attendance book.

On Monday morning I rolled into class and called out the names as I always do.  Again, I got to his.

“Jae Yong?”  Silence.   “Where’s Jae Yong?  Is he sick or something?”

The handful of weary students in front of me shifted in their chairs and glanced at each other.  Finally, a young man in a baseball cap name Jung-oo spoke up:

“Uhm… teacher….  Jae Yong is dead.”

For a second I thought he was joking.  I’ve had many students joke that their missing friends are dead. I reflexively attempted a grin, but from the mood of the others I could tell that Jung-oo was serious.

“Dead?  Really?  ….oh man…  that’s… terrible.  What happened?”

“Car accident.”

“Wow.  I… I don’t know what to say…”

Pause.

“Well… turn to page 32 in your books.  Today we will be going over giving directions to hotel facilities….”

Jae-yong was a new student.   He transferred in this semester from Seoul.  As I sit here, looking at his card (where I write grades and attendance), I see that he was a good student.  A very good student.  I am somehow unable to picture his face, though.  I’ve tried all week to remember what he looked like, and I just get nothing.

While it’s certainly sad that this young man is no longer with us, what also bothers me is the fact that my boss never even informed me.  In fact, none of us – the foreign staff – were told about it.  Here I was reading a DEAD STUDENT’S name for four classes in a row, thinking that he was home with a cold.

What does it take to get to get notified?  One would figure that the death of a student would be a significant enough event for the boss to inform his teachers about.  I cannot conceive for a second why the boss would choose to withhold such information.

This is typical of working in Korea in that, as foreigners, we’re totally out of the communication loop.  We’re really considered off the totem pole in this status-obsessed Confucian culture.  It’s not that we’re high or low – we’re not even in the game to begin with.  And this is an unchangable. A foreigner in Korea will always be just that. No amount of language acquisition, soju tolerance, or chopstick dexterity will make up for that fact. You are an outsider, an alien.  You can get marry into a Korean family, become a Buddhist, and participate in their annual ancestral-rites, but you will never be one them.  They will always consider you to be the other, and, as a result, it may not even occur to them to inform you when someone you know, teach, or work with dies.

Yesterday, I went to my boss and told him what I had heard from my students.  He got a very serious look on his face and said:

“Yes….  it…  it is true that Jae Yong is…  is…” he searched the depths of his mind for a polite way to put it, but came up short, “…dead.”

“What happened?  A car accident?”

“Uhm…  no.  Not car accident.  It is an issue for his family.”

“What do you mean?”

“His family does not wish to say how he died.”

“Okay, ” I said.

“They’ve already had the funeral.  They didn’t want to inform the students until after.”

It became quickly apparent to me that this kid killed himself, hence the family’s reticence to discuss the cause of death.  A sense of secrecy and shame permeated the whole discussion.  It was almost like my boss was saying to me,”It is a sad thing, but better to forget and not mention again,” as if speaking of it would invite a curse or cause the family even more grief.

Is that why he didn’t contact us?  Out of some kind of deference for the family?  Did he think we wouldn’t find out anyway?  Don’t we deserve to be told?

I love this country and I really like my boss, but sometimes Koreans mystify me.
 



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