A Cautionary Tale

In Korea, you’ve gotta watch your butt. Otherwise it’s going to get poked. It goes like this. You’re teaching a class of, let’s say, third graders. One of them, a chubby little guy who’s been coloring industriously, accidently drops his green pencil on the floor. Like the nice teacher you are, you bend over to retrieve it for him. Next thing you know, you’ve flown halfway across the room, your expression frozen between shock and outrage. Whirling around, you see a smug nine-year old, still brandishing the finger "gun" he just jabbed up your butt.

It’s called ddong chim, and, if you’re a Korean under a certain age, it’s hi-larious. If you’re anyone else, it’s deeply disturbing.

Thanks to the invention of clothes, there’s only so far this practice can go. Even so, it’s a surprise most of us could do without. Anyone could be a victim. Adults make great targets, because their posteriors are so conveniently situated at poking height, but kids will as happily go after their fellow students. Foreign teachers offer the added bonus of size, so we're a high-risk category. Incoming EPIK teachers are warned about ddong chim at orientation; the whole room squirms in their chairs at the discovery.

I started out super vigilant, but relaxed after a few months of security remaining unbreeched. As tactics go, my students top out at clubbing one another with their textbooks. Ddong chim seemed, frankly, too sophisticated for them.

Then one day while eating lunch I felt a finger poke my lower back. Lower enough, in fact, that I spun my stool around to quell the joker with a look of death and possibly to return the favor with a chopstick.

There was no one behind me.

Warily, I returned to my rice. There it was again. Poke, poke, POKE.

This time I looked down. A Cabbage Patch with an afro was trying earnestly to get my attention.

I recognized her as the Wilber of the K5 class. Korean kindergarteners are improbably tiny, but this one stood a head shorter than her classmates. I once found her stuck outside her classroom door, straining on tiptoe for the handle. For some inexplicable reason, her mom permed her hair over spring break, turning her head into a giant, staticy furby.

I had to bend pretty low to get in conversation range. With the concentrated effort that fine motor skills require, she planted her pointer finger dead center on my face. It was a little sticky.

Ko,” she said, chibi-eyed.

“Nose,” I agreed.

The conversation stayed there for a moment.

“Is it big?” I finally asked, my hands far apart in illustration.

Solemnly, she nodded. Her little ’fro bobbed.

A teacher called from across the room and she teetered off to join the line of fellow K5ers. Together they bowed to the cafeteria ladies and made for the door like Wibbly Wobblies on parade.

Kwi yeo weo,” the teacher sitting next to me observed. Cute.

Neh.” Yes. I wiped my nose with a napkin, and returned to lunch with one hand parked strategically behind me. I was lucky, but not about to tempt fate twice.