Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Kid They Call 게이, Part 2

Part 1 can be found here.

"Hey JS, can I talk to you after class?"
"Me?" said JS.

I waited until all the other students had left and talked to JS as I cleaned the whiteboard and gathered my things.

"Good job today, by the way," I began. "Um, I just wanted to ask you about your nickname."
"Oh, yeah," said JS, as if he guessed what was coming.
"Why do the other students call you that?"

JS began a rambling story. "Well, it started with JM. He saw my namecard one day, with (my initials) AJS, and the words were a little faded, so you couldn't read it... So he wrote in "gay" (게이) as my name. It's because I'm in the Mathematics Club at our school. People joke that the Mathematics Club is gay. Apparently the leaders of the club a few years ago went crazy. During the event when students introduce their clubs, they said, 'We welcome girls, but we welcome boys even more.'"

"Oh, I see." After listening to all that, well, I couldn't say that I was surprised. "That's... funny."
"Yeah," JS said.
"So you don't mind people calling you that?" I asked.
"No, not really," he replied. "It's just... people being funny."

I walked toward the back of the room to turn off the light, thinking very hard. Then I went for it. "Do you want to know why I don't like it when people use the word 'gay', though?" Not waiting for an answer, I went on. "In the United States, students cannot say that word -- I'm sure you know..." I recalled that JS had lived in New Jersey for three years. "...Because they use it to insult and bully others. Know what I mean?"

JS was quick to catch on. "Yeah. I guess, in Korea, gay people are rare... or hidden..."
"Right," I replied. "Does that make it okay to make fun of them?"
"I guess not," he said.

"Right." I breathed a small sigh. "I'm just glad to know that you aren't offended by it. But I want you to know something." By this time we were both walking toward the door. "If you ever, ever don't like it when someone calls you that, you can tell them to stop. It's that easy. Just say, 'Please don't call me that.' You understand?" I looked at him closely.

"Yeah."
"Okay."

As he stepped out the door, I said, half to myself, "Wow, I guess it's about time I taught a lesson on the power of words, huh?"
"That might be interesting," he said. "Bye, teacher!"
"See ya."

- - -

This conversation took place last week, after a class where everything went smoothly except for one moment in a game, when JM, the same student who gave JS his nickname, called a girl gay, and the entire class erupted in laughter. I was so angry. I paused the game and sternly told them not to use "gay" as an insult. But what use is that? How could my students know they're using it as an insult? It's just a joke to most of them.

On the bright side, the incident reminded me that I wanted to talk to JS, and the opportunity opened itself right up after class.

But... sigh. How many times is this going to happen?

At last weekend's Fulbright Conference, my friend Sara and I led a small group discussion centered on LGBTQ issues as expats and teachers in Korea. We talked about various issues, including straight-washing relationships, encountering students who may be LGBTQ, how to challenge locals' notions of Korea's queer community, and handling homophobia in the classroom and workplace. I wish I could say I had all the answers, but I definitely don't. Fortunately, having the support of my friends and colleagues is encouragement enough for now.

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