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“teacha! cunning! teacha! cunning!”
 
these were the only words i could make out amidst a myriad of young korean boys yelling overtop of one another. at this point, the perpetrator of cunning was still at large. 
 
now you should know, my korean vocabulary is limited. embarrassingly limited. i have been here for four months and a snapshot of my korean looks a little like this: i know the words for “battery,” “right” (but not left), “smoke,” “yes,” “bobby pin,” “passport picture,” and “really.” i can’t seem to remember words that would be you know, important in day-to-day interactions. words like “no” or “please” just seem waaaay too difficult for me. or phrases that would be mildly useful like “i’m sorry” or “i’m an ignorant foreigner with difficulties learning a new language past elementary-level francais (that’s french…..for french)” are apparently, just too much for me to handle.
 
oh yes, and i know “cunning.” i have learned “cunning” partly because it sounds english (even with a completely different definition) but also because it is a word that has been “frenemy” of mine in my academic past.    
 
when translated, “cunning” means “cheating.”
 
and so it was. with my limited korean vocabulary, i tried to decipher the situation that caused a group of middle-school boys to practically lunge across the tables at their opponents. as i wrestled these boys back into their seats, one gorilla of a prepubescent boy became the perpetrator of cunning. fingers all pointed towards him (korean kiddies are quick to sell out their buds) as he began to whine to me in korean. unfortunately for him, he was not talking about batteries or passport pictures. so consequently, i had no idea what in the world he was trying to negotiate. (granted if he wanted to discuss the pros and cons of wearing bobby pins in passport pictures over a smoke outside a battery store…i still would probably have no idea what he was trying to say).  
 
now in most classes, you can certainly hope that there is at least one student with manageable english. this student is your lifeline. as soon as he or she is identified, you must present yourself as an ally. always allow an extra second (or 30) for him to translate to his peers the bizarre game you think will help them learn the roles on an airplane. and always let him volunteer first to roll out his cookie dough in cooking class. you will thank yourself later when you don’t have 15 boys covered in flour and picking sprinkles out from under their abnormally long fingernails.
 
so now i have a gorilla accused of cunning and am searching wildly for my lifeline. praying to the esl gods above that he wasn’t actually placed in a more advanced class. as the noise died down…my lifeline appeared.
 
probably noticing that i was slightly intimidated by gorilla’s size (and outrageous amount of body hair for a 14-year-old), lifeline stepped in and offered me the kind of advice you would see on the cover of a glossy new hardcover diary from chapters or better yet, read in a fortune cookie from sun sun’s.
 
“teacha, don’t be mild.”
 
it took a second to process. all the while, gorilla is still pacing and leering over all of his accusers (most likely looking for gnats to pick out of their cute korean hair). 
 
lifeline had a point. sure he probably meant something completely different and was mainly referring to gorilla’s neanderthal-like behaviours but as i see it, lifeline wanted me to put gorilla in his place. be stern with him, not mild. teach him all the reasons why cunning will cause you grief in the future. lecture gorilla on the idea that even if you think the prof won’t notice if you copy and paste a stellar paragraph from an obscure journal article into your closing summary, that in reality, the prof will notice. and you will get busted. 

 however, i didn’t think about any of this (besides, my days of cunning are behind me). all i could think of about was that line.

“don’t be mild.”

discerning and yet, slightly encouraging. 
 
it’s now a daily reminder on my computer screen (in addition to the come-and-gone beijing departure). 

and tonight i had an extra-helping of chili paste on my salad.

see lifeline? i’m taking your advice seriously.

( i suppose plagarism is a far cry from cheating but it shares some of those guilty pit-feeling-in-your-stomach kinds of associations. plus, i have yet to learn the korean word for “plagarize.” but not to worry, it doesn’t seem that useful of a word so i’ll probably pick it up by the end of today).

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