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The Way Things Go and Come Around

At the end of high school, getting onto a bus with my first girlfriend, I was mistaken for a girl.

Okay, it was a very old, blind bus driver; he had to be, as I never really did keep up with shaving in high school. But I guess this guy grew up in a time when long hair equalled girl, and that last year of high school, I had let my hair grow out. So he addressed us, collectively, as “young ladies”. I don’t know, maybe he knew what he was doing and did it just to insult me — we were, after all, holding hands at the time.

But anyway, it’s funny how things come around full circle.

I like to end my writing classes with something a little different. Usually, during the class, I run across unusual phrases, expressions that are commonly used in English by Koreans but which native speakers tend not to use, things like that. Occasionally I accumulate lists of these words during the course of a class and go through them. Today, the final one was the usage of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”.

It’s not uncommon to hear young men referring to a “boyfriend”, and this is without the connotation we have in English for that word when used by a man. They’re meaning something closer to “male friend” or “buddy” or “guy friend” but “boy friend” is, I guess, somewhat of a literal translation from Korean, where homosexuality is so taboo that the meaning is just implicit. Or something. Actually, a woman could mean “male friend” by the term, though the same word can mean “boyfriend” as in honeybunny or lover or whatever.

Anyway, the reason this word came up in class was because, at the end of the break, I commented on something of a trend which has become a running joke. Last week, at about 10:00pm, some guy was standing outside the door looking bored, and I commented that someone’s boyfriend was waiting. (Class ends 10:30-ish.) A couple of girls wondered if it was their boyfriend, but most people just got a kick out of it. Well, tonight, at the end of the break, I saw a poor individual sitting on the benches across from the class. A picture would be preferable but I don’t have one, so I’ll describe what I saw: choppy hair of the kind all the young lads wear these days; a thick red lumber jacket; patchy jeans; and a look of miserable boredom on a face twisted by concentration on the music blasting through a small, stylish MP3 player. (Yes, MP3 players are fashion here, now.)

So I commented to the class, “Someone’s boyfriend is out there waiting, already!”

Again, the amusement, but one of the more outgoing guys in the class put up his hand. “Your boyfriend?” I asked.

“Uh, yes!” he said, assertively.

“Um, we need to talk about that word,” I said, and added it to the words-to-discuss list.

Forty minutes later, at the end of class, I was reviewing the words, and it went very well. Touching on the subject of homosexuality is a touchy thing at a Catholic University, but luckily, I could illuminate the meaning easily. “When a man says ‘boyfriend’, there’s really only one meaning for that in English…” I paused meaningfully. Then I followed up with, “Brokeback Mountain.” A release of tension, smiles, laughter. “Now, if you have a boyfriend, I’m not criticising you. But I want to make sure you’re saying what you mean.” And I mean it. I think students got that I wasn’t mocking homosexuality, but only raising the point that a man using the word “boyfriend” implies it, and that one guy had implied it, probably mistakenly, earlier that evening.

(Whether this contributes to a more general homophobia is another discussion. I don’t think so, and I hope not, but it could be arguable. But that’s for another post, and all I can say is that I hardly worry about my impact on increasing homophobia in Korea; I have very little faith in the idea we foreigners have such a powerful impact on this society, and I don’t think a clarification of terminology is likely to do so.)

In any case, the embarrassment came later. After I made it clear that in common English speech, women could say “my girlfriend” without implying homosexuality, but guys couldn’t use “my boyfriend” in this way, and that “my best girlfriend” sounds a little awkward to me, and probably best replaced with “my best friend”, the end of class came.

I was a little while packing away the homework assignments of the students, and when I left, I saw the “boyfriend” guy out in the hall next to Red Lumberjacket. To test whether my clarification had sunk in, I said, “Who is this?”

“My girlfriend,” he said, smiling. She looked up, and smiled a girlish smile that clashed with the choppy Japanese-boy hair, and said, in a sweet, high-pitched voice, “Hi there.”

“Oh, I… uh… well. I misunderstood you in there! I thought you said boyfriend! Sorry! Um… good night, you two!” Well, that’s how awkward I felt.

Yeah, I’m old enough now that I can tell boys from girls, with all this &$#@*! youth-fashion. Next I’ll probably start complaining about their music. Oh, wait, I’ve been doing that all my life.

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