There are a couple of different words for "teacher" in Korean. Seonsaengnim is what my students always call me, and is probably the most common term. Gyosa is what was printed below my name on my name tag at the teacher's seminar we had when the big boss of Reading Town, Dr. Song Sun-Ho, came to town. Its meaning is virtually indistinguishable from the first term.
But there's another word for teacher that I know of. It is seuseung (스승). It's probably the hardest of the three to pronounce; that particular Korean vowel sound that makes up both syllables has no common counterpart in English, and is accomplished by making an "oo" sound without making an "o" out of your lips. The resultant sound is something akin to the one Lucille Ball made on I Love Lucy whenever she got caught in the middle of a supreme goof-up.
That aside, seuseung is a somber and weighty word, not to be taken lightly. It's hardly ever used anymore in conversational Korean. It is an ancient term, originating from the Joseon Dynasty, the height of the country's cultural and political accomplishments. During the span of its 500 years, the dynasty consolidated its absolute rule over all of Korea. Confucian ideals were cemented into Korean culture. Sejong the Great, one of Korea's most esteemed kings, invented Hangeul ("great script"), the Korean alphabet. Heroic Admiral Yi Sun-Shin led his unbeatable navy of turtle ships to victory against repeated Japanese encroachments. (One decisive battle took place not a stone's throw from where I am, in the harbor of the town of Okpo, the next town over from my bailiwick here in Gohyeon). Scientific advancement and architectural accomplishment flourished.
In those days, teachers were not the whipping boys of parents and principals and superintendents, chivvied into teaching bland, standardized, unimaginative sludge to bored, hyperactive, spoiled or punky children for wages not fit for a high school dropout. (I'm not for a minute suggesting that my job here in Korea in any way resembles the above; I'll grant you that the parents have more say than we'd like, the material's a bit too standardized sometimes and the children can be more than a little punky on occasion, but the salary's excellent and you can't beat the location nor the actual work in essence.)
No, those days were different. Teachers were venerated. Anyone who had proven themselves a master of academic, philosophical and epistemological matters was held in the highest esteem, on the same level as parents and kings. That is typical of Confucian values, nowhere more fiercely adopted than in Korea, as I should explain before I go on. There is a strict hierarchy at work in the social fabric. As a member of society, you are required to know, at all times, who is above you and who is beneath you on the ladder of status and experience. Seniority is everything. Jacob, the director of my hagwon, is the undisputed leader; if he requests that you do something, work overtime, put in extra hours, take on a difficult assignment, come in early, you do it. (As a courtesy to the cultural differences between East and West, we foreign teachers are not expected to comply with these subtle norms and mores we know next to nothing about; but we still feel like heels for not doing so.)
In Western society it's acceptable to decline requests of this nature, depending on how good an excuse you manage to come up with. Here it's different. Even if the option is verbally given to you, you are tacitly expected to put your head down, keep your mouth shut, and pull the extra weight. That's Confucianist society. It is a two-way street, however. If you do this, and never do anything that would cause your superiors or your boss to lose face, he will always pay for food and drinks. We've been taken out to eat half a dozen times since I've worked at Reading Town, and always Jacob has picked up the tab. And always I notice the Korean teachers putting in those extra hours. The work ethic is really quite amazing.
This Confucianist hierarchy manifests itself in more ways than this, however. The complex system of Korean honorifics and labels is proof of that. Older brothers are called hyeong by their younger brothers. It's typical of any male friend to address his older male friend by that name, too (or, if he does not know him that well, it is polite to call him seonsaengnim). Younger sisters call their older brothers something else...just as younger brothers call their older sisters something different, as do younger sisters calling their older sisters. Wowzer, it nearly discouraged me from learning Korean. (If you think that's bad, you should see how many different counting systems there are. I'll have to speak about that some other time.)
Younger siblings are all called by one single name: dongsaeng. When you pour a drink for someone else in Korea (and you usually do; it's bad form to pour your own, so everybody keeps an eye out for everybody else's drink), you must use two hands to hold the bottle if the person holding the glass is older. If the person holding the glass is older, they need only hold that glass with one hand. Same deal when they pour for you: they need only use one hand to hold the bottle, while you must hold your glass with two hands. Likewise, when you offer something to someone older than you are (be it a cup of coffee, or a interdepartmental memo, or a dead fish) you do it with two hands, or with one hand supporting your offering arm. You also accept things from an older person with two hands.
The list goes on. Hardly anybody is on the same level you are. If you're someone's elder, or have worked at a job for longer than they have, or have simply more notches in your belt...then you're higher up. My barber, a short and dignified old man with flyaway gray hair and the most unbelievably soft hands, who runs a little one-room, two-chair shop just down the street from me, always bows at the waist and accepts my 10,000 won with two hands. Customer-proprietor relationship, I suppose it to be. As might be expected, your parents are extremely important, and must be afforded the utmost respect. Children have it tough in Korea. They are expected to submit completely to their parents' demands, and nowadays those demands are pretty uniform: get up, eat your breakfast, go to school, go to your English academy (and then your science academy, and your piano academy, et cetera), come home, eat dinner, go to your room, study for a few hours, go to sleep, then wake up and do it all over again, six days a week. Disobedience is severely punished. Parents are kings. Grandparents are gods. During the Korean holidays of Chuseok and Seolnar (roughly analagous to Thanksgiving and New Year, respectively), Korean children visit their grandparents, bow so low their head touches the carpet (as do their parents), and then if their grandparents are magnanimous types, the children receive money which they can then blow on whatever their little hearts desire. It's a pity nobody's figured out how to bottle free time yet.
What with all this emphasis on status afforded by social rank and experience, it's not surprising that kings, parents, and teachers would wind up being virtually equal. There are no kings in Korea now, and hardly any seuseung-deul-eun, but back then there were plenty. Seuseung is a hard term to encompass in less than a paragraph. It is, as I've told you, a venerable title. It meant one who was a great master, an intellectual, a guide, a genius at many arts, knower of arcane wisdom and giver of knowledge. But it was more than that, too. This person had traveled, had seen much, had experienced hardships, had walked many different roads of life to reach the point where they were now. (Thus their respect, unlike some kings and even some parents, was usually well-deserved.) But even beyond that, seuseung is a deeply personal term. It means one who is like a second father to you. He takes you in hand, he is firm at some points and gentle at others in his handling of you, but at all times he helps you and teaches you and guides you and looks out for you. It's a powerful word. There's a lot of profound meaning wrapped up in those two little hard-to-pronounce syllables.
Why am I telling you this? Well, aside from the fact that it's darned interesting on its own, I happen to know a seuseung. He'll disagree, of course (he's incurably modest), but after hearing his definition of the word, and mulling it over in my mind, I don't think there's anybody who deserves it more than him, not in modern-day Korea. He's a bit young for the title, maybe. When I think back to the seuseung-deul-eun of the Joseon era all I can envision are little, wizened old men with long white hair and beards and sideburns wearing baggy pants and strange hats who sit in smoky halls and randomly spew out answers to life's questions. But the main I'm thinking of passes muster on all of the qualities I've described above.
His name is Charles, and he's the head teacher at my hagwon. He's not in any way wizened or hairy. Nor does he wear anything baggy. He's 39 and he's in the shape of his life, in fact; Sundays playing soccer (excuse me, Adam; football) down at the elementary school with his buddies keep him pretty fit. Nor does he hold back; I saw him block two shots in quick succession by leaping in front of the ball and hunkering down so they bounced off his back. Yeeowch. I find it hard to describe him, somehow. He's shorter than I am, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a Korean who isn't. He wears glasses, black, thick, and square-rimmed after the popular fashion. His clothes are trendy but not overtly so, avoiding flamboyance. He speaks English quite well, without as pronounced an accent as other Koreans.
His hometown is Changwon, directly north of this island, on the southern coast. Before coming to work at Reading Town he was living and teaching there (Changwon is Masan's new partner, or suburb, depending on how you want to look at it). He lived for a while on Geoje before, however, and is familiar with the island. He was born and bred in this, Gyeongsangnam-do Province, and has the gruff Korean accent to prove it, something Esther (a native of Seoul, herself) constantly teases him about.
He has a girlfriend, Anne, whom he met I know not how long ago, who lives in Okpo and also teaches English. They recently moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the north end of town, an arrangement previously thought scandalous by the Korean public and still not encouraged. (He requested I keep it under my hat; if the boss should find out there could be problems.) He can drink his weight in soju or mekju and absolutely loves the species of samgyupsal known as hangjeongsal, slightly less fatty but subsequently less flavorful.
Charles did a lot of things before he came to work at Reading Town. He was born in a Korea inconceivable to me and anyone else who wasn't around to witness it personally. In the wake of the war, Korea had no infrastructure, no paved roads, no cars or telephone lines, hardly any of the Western conveniences that you and I have become so accustomed to. It was nearly impossible to get around except the old-fashioned way: walking. Corporal punishment is still commonplace in Korean schools, but when Charles was coming up he was beaten on his backside with a mop handle by his teachers. The bruises, he recalls, made it difficult to sit down. The rest of his life I am only gradually coming to know. I still have none of it in the correct order, but somewhere along the line Charles started up his own hagwon (it failed after a few months due to some financial technicality); owned a bar; served in the military (he drove a supply truck, but got high scores for his marksmanship); worked as a designer and engineer for several food companies, including one that manufactured specially-tailored kimchi refrigerators; and even lived in Torrance, California for several months.
As a result, Charles has an intrinsic knowledge of Korean history (he placed extremely high on all his exams in college, and made the penultimate round in a national intelligence and knowledge contest), particularly anything related to food or its preparation. His English is, as I glossed over previously, practically flawless. He can also drink me under the table, he loves going out on the town, he can drive and load well, and is just an all-around knowledgeable and worldly person. More than that, however, he is kind, friendly, and modest. I've never had a more patient teacher. Even when I don't do my homework (which is fairly often), he never seriously scolds me, let alone break out the mop handles. I goof up frequently both in written and spoken Korean, and he gently corrects me. He never hesitates to offer help, and is always willing to do something fun; say, meet up at the pub for a drink after work or cook up a mess of bulgogi (his secret recipe was an unqualified masterpiece, divinely delicious). I thank him endlessly for his help and he laughs and says, "That's okay." I compliment him every so often, and he never toots his own horn. Irrespective of cultural norms that dictate he shrug off praise, I know he'd still do so. No matter how busy he is, if there's something you need assistance with or something he might look up for you, he'll drop what he's doing and do it, or get it done as quickly as possible.
This has happened more times than I can relate: I needed a Korean mailing address, or I needed information on language downloads for my computer, or I needed to order Korean textbooks. Charles is the head teacher at Reading Town, and a decidedly busy man. He teaches classes and handles a boatload of administrative duties. But he still takes half an hour out of his early afternoons to teach me, a bumbling weguk, the Korean language. He tells me jokes, makes small talk, asks me questions, is thoughtful as they come, and relates proverbs and folk tales from Korea's past (at my behest; the one about the old border man's horse was particularly good, and will be dealt with later).
Charles is knowledgeable, genteel, tactful, patient, friendly, approachable, versatile, hardworking, worldly, generous, helpful, wise, and intelligent.
That is why I call him seuseung.