Posts filed under 'Teaching'
In the past two weeks, I reached two major milestones in my Korean life. The vast gap between them tells you a lot about my life abroad.
Milestone #1: For the first time in 9 months, I ordered food over the phone and had it delivered to my apartment. I danced for joy when I hung up the phone. Ordering food by phone is actually pretty complicated. You have to know the words for (and pronunciations of) the food, ordering, delivery, and your address. You have no chance to read body language or hand gestures. You also have to field the unexpected questions: Is a 10 minute delay ok? We are really busy. Do you want our special side order? Such small things are really hard when you only have basic language skills!
Milestone #2: For the first time in Korea, I gave a paper at an international conference without translation. The audience had people from a half dozen countries, but the majority were Korean. All understood English, but about half could not speak comfortably in English. Therefore after taking questions in English, I encouraged the audience to ask questions in Korean. Only then did I have the horrible realization- the bilingual conference organizers had left the room to arrange the next panel and no one was available to translate the questions!
So, for three questions in a row, I drew on my minimal knowledge of Korean, bi-cultural knowledge of gender issues, body language, and wonderfully helpful Korean terms in English (like “golden miss” - the Korean term for single women in their 30s with good jobs and no desire to marry). I could not answer the questions in Korean, but I did my best with slow, clear English. Afterward one Korean graduate student shook my hand and said in utter awe (and rather good English), “No foreigner has ever LET me ask a question in Korean before. And you even UNDERSTOOD me!”
Her comment says volumes about the complicated relationship Koreans have with English. She probably COULD have asked a question in English, but she WOULD NOT have. She was not comfortable enough. Just as I probably could have ordered food delivery a few months ago, but I did not want to get half way through my order and realize I had no idea how to say the word “delivery”! Her distinction between my allowing her to ask a question and my understanding her Korean also shows she recognized that allowing the question was about respect, but understanding and answering it was about skill. Out of sheer stubborn pride, I did not tell her I only understood 6 words in her 8 sentence question and I only knew that much because one of my Pyeongtaek University students had asked a similar question during my Race and Gender class. I take my victories however I can get them!
As I expected, now that I have a clue what I am doing, I am headed home. My third milestone was today - I taught my final class in Korea. I will give final exams next week and I leave the country a little earlier than planned on June 22. With luck I will come back to Korea at some point and get to use all this experience. But if not, the learning process was a reward in itself - now I know I was up to the challenge. Besides, ordering food by phone will never feel this good again.
June 5, 2008
In my American Political Culture class, I have been trying to use lots of examples from Korean politics to help explain America’s politics. This has had mixed success. Like most Americans, most Koreans have limited knowledge of their own political system. But we are learning together. So here is a primer for all of you wanting to know about Korean politics (and possibly needing a reminder about how our U.S. system is supposed to work):
Koreans have direct election of the president. They do not have an Electoral College to moderate the potentially immature and irrational decisions of the voters (at least, that was the original idea of the Electoral College).
In addition, Korean Presidents serve 5 years (not 4) and cannot be reelected. Koreans are even more eager than Americans ever were to avoid a dictatorial (or monarchical) President. They do not, however, have the office of Vice President. If something happens to the President, they have to have a national election to replace him. They also have to have a national referendum to change the Constitution, rather than getting three-quarters of the states to approve the change.
Interestingly, Koreans did not have Presidential primaries until 2004. They are still experimenting with them, combining votes by party members (less than 10% of the population) and cell phone public opinion polls. They have dozens of political parties, which change with every election. The oldest political party was formed in the 1990s.
Koreans have a unicameral, not bicameral legislature. This means they have one National Assembly, not a House of Representatives and a Senate. Everyone serves four years, rather than 2 and 6 respectively in the U.S. Whereas impeachment and trial are completely Legislative rights in the U.S., (The House impeaches and the Senate holds a trial), in Korea the Legislature impeaches, but the Judiciary (Supreme Court) holds a trial.
The Judiciary in Korea works much like that of the U.S. with two huge exceptions. Korea has both a Supreme Court (for appeals) and a Constitutional Court (specifically to examine issues of constitutionality). In addition, Korea does not have trial by jury. As of January 1, 2008, the first ever jury trials were held in Korea, on an advisory basis.
The Korean Constitution is many pages longer than the U.S. and infinitely more specific. (If you would like to read it in English, see http://english.ccourt.go.kr/home/english/welcome/republic.jsp). It lists hundreds of things the government must do, but maintains flexibility by saying the government must do them “according to Act” or in other words, according to current law. Therefore changing the spirit of the constitution can be as easy as changing the law. Thus the amazing rights provided in the Constitution are highly contingent on law, whereas in the U.S. they are far more contingent on judicial interpretations. Still, here are some of the impressive rights listed in the Korean Constitution and not in the U.S.
1) All citizens shall be equal before the law, and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social or cultural life on account of sex, religion or social status.
2) The privacy of no citizen shall be infringed.
3) All citizens shall enjoy freedom of conscience.
4) All citizens shall enjoy freedom of learning and the arts.
5) All citizens shall have an equal right to receive an education corresponding to their abilities.
6) All citizens have the right and the duty to work.
7) All citizens shall be entitled to a life worthy of human beings.
8) All citizens shall have the right to a healthy and pleasant environment.
One passage I find fascinating is directly under the rights of free speech, free press, assembly and petition (mirroring our First Amendment in the Bill of Rights). Our Bill of Rights definitely does not have this clause: “Neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics. Should speech or the press violate the honor or rights of other persons, claims may be made for the damage resulting therefrom.” While the U.S. criminalizes slander (spoken defamation) and libel (written defamation), we rarely prosecute writers for undermining public morals and social ethics. (Though we have in the past - McCarthyism comes to mind).
For this reason I find the Korean Constitution a fascinating mix of liberal beliefs (their statements about equality and rights far exceed those in America) and a conservative focus on social morality (placing the good of society above the rights of the individual.) It is also, thus far, mostly a piece of paper. The American Constitution has achieved an almost religious status, with politicians constantly referring to it to support their points or challenge their opponents. A “Constitutional Right” is valued above all others. In Korea, the Constitution has been amended a dozen times already, and is seen more as a guideline than an absolute standard. In some ways, the Korean Constitution faces the same challenges the American one did when President Andrew Jackson supposedly said “The Supreme Court has made their decision, now let them enforce it.” History teaches that our Constitution has not always been quite so sacred. This is perhaps the most shocking thing to Korean students - and perhaps the most hopeful.
May 25, 2008
Membership Training (MT)
The first time a student asked if I had heard about “Emtee” I was baffled. What was this odd sounding Korean word? But “MT” is a student and corporate employee tradition that mixes bonding exercises, motivational talks and late night drinking. In some cases the drinking has overshadowed the rest of the point, so much so that Pyeongtaek University actually discontinued MT this year. So I approached our unofficial “department seminar” this past weekend with excitement and trepidation.
What struck me first and foremost was that this retreat was organized by and for the students. They chose the date, raised the money, hired the bus, rented the retreat center, organized all the activities, designated leaders for every conceivable purpose, and mostly remembered to keep the faculty informed of the plan. We were honored guests.
Second, I was struck by the amazing graciousness of the students, because we were guests. When other students failed to show up on time, at least 20 students apologized to me for our late departure. When we arrived, a student leader tried to keep everyone on the bus for 10 minutes waiting for a car to come drive me up the steep 300 yards to the retreat center. (After two hours on the bus, I was grateful to walk, though it took some careful wording to make this clear to the student). I never lacked for a cup of water or a student willing to translate. To be fair, I did only get 3 days notice that they needed me to give a 20 minute lecture - and one faculty member got 10 minutes notice!
What did we do? We sat in groups, chose team titles, and created banners. We drew portraits of people in our group, gave them nicknames (mine was “Grace Woman”), and interviewed them so we could introduce them to others. The students played bonding games and held competitions. My favorite was “Guess which student is eating a wasabi sandwich and which is just faking it.” Late in the evening people floated from group to group, this one playing drinking games, that one debating soccer teams, another talking about their English linguistics homework due tomorrow. Students cooked ramen noodles, kimchee stew and other traditional student foods at 11 pm and most stayed up until 3. I conked out at 2.
I did give my lecture. I used my engagement ring as a material object through which we could study international trade, American culture, migration, oral history, and personal biography. My point was the interdisciplinary nature of American Studies, and the power of curiosity and background knowledge. The American Studies program here tries to give students the latter. If they bring a willingness to ask questions, ordinary objects are windows to the world.
At 11 pm, I was suddenly informed it was time for me to sing. Had anybody mentioned this earlier? Billy Joel to the rescue! I belted out his “Uptown Girl,” which amazingly almost every student knew. Nothing makes you feel like a rock star like 70 screaming, cheering, singing, dancing students egging you on. I also helped to judge the Miss Santa Maria contest. By tradition, each group dressed up one freshman male in women’s clothing. The men then competed in song and dance routines. You have not lived until you have seen your male students in jury-rigged miniskirts doing a pole dance - with an elderly coat rack.
MT required only two things of me - partial surrender of control and temporary suspension of cultural judgment. That pretty much defines my experience of Korea. Taking risks, trying new things, and postponing judgment have given me space to have experiences I never would have thought to try. Supportive students and colleagues have made that process feel safe. This weekend, I was surprised to discover I really am a valued “member” of the team. It is an honor, though it makes the reality of leaving even more bittersweet.
(There are more pictures in the MT set at http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/sets/72157604409909881/ . I will add more as I get them from the students. Hopefully no one took any photographs of me singing!)
1 comment April 7, 2008
Sharing holidays in Korea has been one of the best parts of my stay here. You can see previous blogs for discussions of Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok), Halloween and American Thanksgiving.
This month the students shared a holiday triple-play with me and I shared one with them.
I thought Americans made a huge deal of Valentine’s Day. Flowers, chocolates, red and pink hearts, candy, music: February is always a bit overwhelming. But Koreans have taken the idea of Valentine’s Day to a new level, turning it into THREE separate holidays. Here’s how it works:
On Valentine’s Day, tradition here says that girls should give their boyfriends chocolate and a gift. Flowers are way too expensive in February since everyone is already buying them for middle school, high school and college graduations. But what do guys get girls?
Yep. Guys get girls nothing for Valentine’s Day. ( I can hear American guys cheering all the way over here). But wait. This is because the true Korean Valentine’s Day is in March - March 14 to be exact.
On “White Day”, guys buy girls flowers or candy and a gift. While I was surprised the advertising for Valentines’ Day was so ordinary, this is because White Day is the BIG day. Candy baskets cascade into the street and florists have a waiting line. In my March 14 class, I was interrupted by the delivery of a dozen red roses and a chocolate cake from one girl’s boyfriend, studying abroad in Australia. (I didn’t notice but I’m sure the guys in the class just groaned, watching the ante get upped before their eyes).
THEN on April 14, Koreans celebrate “Black Day”. In America, single people tend to protest the overwhelming “couple” focus of Valentine’s Day by wearing black and hanging out with their single friends. Here there is a whole day for doing that. Same-sex friends, whether single or dating, give each other chocolate and flowers and spend the day together, celebrating friendship.
Hallmark has a whole new market to explore here.
In return, I shared American Easter with my students. It is hard to believe but Korea has no Easter bunny!
Korean Christians celebrate the spiritual holiday of Easter, but the holiday does not seem to have a secular component the way it does in the United States. No Easter baskets, no pastel-colored malted milk eggs, no towering displays of chocolate bunnies, no Easter egg dying, no Easter egg hunts. It is as if the Christian holiday arrived in Korea stripped of the pagan celebrations of spring inherent in the eggs, the pastels, the little bunny rabbits.
My husband and parents, guessing I would want to share “American” Easter with my students, sent me plastic Easter eggs, Easter “grass”, and all the traditional candies. So I began all my classes this week with questions about Easter in Korea, discussions of the Christian holiday, and then explanations of the other ways Americans celebrate Easter in addition to going to church. The students were a bit baffled; to be fair “secularized” religious holidays are a bit baffling. But on a warm, sunny day, it was easy to understand celebrating the return of spring, the rising of the world from the death of winter.
The discussion of holidays pointed out one more interesting piece of culture. Whenever older Koreans visit each other or give a hoiliday gift, it tends to be food. Cartons of fresh fruit, decorative boxes of Spam, gift-wrapped containers of hand-made kimchee, even bottles of olive and grapeseed oil. The younger generation likes any excuse for chocolate. So how long will it be before foot-high Easter bunnies are all the rage in Korea?
March 23, 2008
Second semester, final third
On Monday March 3, classes officially start at Pyeongtaek University for the 2008 academic year. We will have Convocation and the once every four year installation of the University President. I will start teaching on Thursday the 7th and classes will run until the 13th of June.
I am excited to start teaching again. My colleagues in New Hampshire are already giving midterms and thinking about spring break! But I am also very aware that when this semester ends, I am going home. I arrived in August and one week later plunged into classes. I knew so little; I just rode whatever waves came and hoped for the best. Then I had a two and a half month break, with Tod’s visit, illness, research, travel, and class preparation. Now the last piece starts, the second semester, but the final third of my appointment here.
Already I can feel the pull of home. My Saint Anselm department chair and I have chosen my classes and teaching times for the fall, and I’ve written course descriptions and talked to students about classes. I’ve signed my contract to return to Saint Anselm in the fall. I have plane tickets home for June 30th.
This feeling of being “caught between” two places is partly why I agreed to come for an entire year. If I knew I was going home in December, I would already be thinking about it in October. But thinking about home, does not mean I am unhappy here. I have cherry and pear blossoms to see, mountains still to hike, an exotic island to visit. My parents are coming for a week in May, I’m giving a paper on teaching in Korea, and I still have some Benedictine monks to visit here. Who knows what will happen on campus. Last semester we had Halloween parties and department plays, sports events and class dinners. This photo is me playing Little Red Riding Hood’s mom.
Most importantly I will be teaching, and I am looking forward to the energy and excitement of a new group of students. My two courses are outside my expertise - American Political Culture and Contemporary America (1945 to the present). So I will be learning as much as the students! I have been reading over break to understand the Korean political system. I have also been trying to think “What would a person need to know about 1945 to the present to understand why America is the way it is today?” With more than 50 students in one class and less than 10 in the other, the pedagogy or teaching techniques may be a challenge as well. So bring on the semester! Let the adventure continue!
1 comment March 2, 2008
What does it mean to be an American?
A few months ago, I was a guest lecturer in another Pyeongtaek University professor’s class. A student asked me “What does it mean to be an American?” A month later, I gave a lecture to an international conference on the topic of the impact of the American Revolution on modern American society. Again, I was asked, “How do you define ‘being American’?” In both cases, I was a bit at a loss for words. “Well that is partly what I came to Korea to find out!” I joked. But it was a good question, and one which some people in America hotly debate.
In both cases, I gave the best answer I had. First, despite the massive rise in the use of Spanish, we still define Americans as people who speak English. Perhaps this is particularly true for me because as soon as I open my mouth here in Korea, people ask me if I am American (I speak English and it does not have a British or Australian accent). People would not ask that immediately if I spoke Spanish.
Second, we are people who believe in equality, even if we do not always practice it. We have good ideals in the Declaration of Independence and good practices based on the Constitution. When we adhere to our ideals and practices, we treat each other respectfully and fairly. We generally have respect for the law, and generally the law is fair (even if its application is not).
Third, we are a people who believe in opportunity. It is not equally available, and not everyone can grow up to be President, but Americans still believe in a nation where you can “make something of yourself.” We still believe, if only barely, that our children will be better off financially than we are.
Having now had months to think it over, I have come up with a number of other answers, though all are the small kinds of things that do not make good answers in class. Being in a foreign country puts “the small things” in sharp relief.
We are the only nation that sets aside an entire national holiday to eat and watch professional sports together (Thanksgiving). When we watch sports, it is almost never soccer, the sport of choice everywhere else. We are one of the few nations that encourage small children to dress up as scary things and extort candy from neighbors. We are one of very few nations where in some parts of the country you can carry a concealed weapon in church just in case you have to defend yourself. South Koreans think the right for civilians to carry a gun exists “only in America”.
Americans allow everyone from the corner shop keeper to the President of the company to use our first names - and we often use theirs. We call our sporting events “World Championships” even if no other country is allowed to participate. We never, ever fly our flag lower than anyone else’s. We have very few citizenship responsibilities, and count on underpaid volunteers to defend us.
Perhaps most centrally, I wish I had told both audiences, “Being American means we are allowed to be deeply angry with our government, to protest freely, and to make changes in law or even the Constitution. But we can also not care at all; apathy is American too.” Both the right to agitate and the right not to care are traditions from the American Revolution; we tend to forget that one third of the citizens did not care who won that war as long as they were left alone.
If you are inclined, write to me or leave a comment and tell me what you think makes Americans American. I think each of us would likely have a different answer and somehow that seems markedly American as well. What binds our nation together? How do we explain that to others? That is my job, and it is fascinating.
1 comment February 1, 2008
Living abroad makes clear that what we Americans take for granted as ordinary and common might be unusual or strange to other cultures. Halloween is my latest example.
South Koreans have not traditionally celebrated Halloween. It has recently become popular at big amusement parks and in a few neighborhoods in the capital Seoul, but generally South Koreans do not know about it. Therefore planning a Halloween party for my students was a major undertaking in cultural exchange and creative shopping.
First I looked for pumpkins. American history textbooks will tell you that pumpkins are a New World vegetable which delighted English colonists who had, until then, been carving radishes and turnips for Halloween (yes, radishes and turnips - I cannot quite imagine!). The jack-o-lantern pumpkins that are absolutely everywhere in America throughout October simply do not exist in South Korea. The much rarer, flattened, dusty orange pumpkin (sometimes called a cheese pumpkin in America) is the only kind of pumpkin I could find here.
Then there were the decorations. The huge supercenter in my town had orange and black balloons (which even said Happy Halloween!). Two days before Halloween I got the last bag. I also found a few tiny plastic pumpkins. I bought construction paper and used all the black and orange sheets to make bats, cats, spiders and jack-o-lanterns - and then had to look up why we used those symbols for Halloween so I could explain them to my students!
My students seemed to enjoy the story of Jack. When the Devil came for Jack, Jack trapped him in a tree and demanded an extra ten years of life in exchange for releasing him. When Jack died and went to Hell, the Devil got his revenge by refusing Jack entrance. Jack was forced to walk the earth with a lantern in his hand forever. I felt obligated to tell my students that most Americans have no idea who Jack is or why we carve Jack-o-lanterns. It is fascinating what we do not know until we have to explain it to others.
Only two students made an effort at a costume, but all helped to carve their first ever jack-o-lanterns and many made Halloween decorations. A few students collaborated on a glowing orange skull with a cigarette that looks like a great anti-smoking ad, and I now have a collection of tokaebbies or Korean ghosts on my wall. A few students shared Korean ghost stories, and all who said “trick or treat” left with candy. My local stores did not carry a single American candy item except extra dark Snickers minis. So my little pumpkins were filled with Snickers, red ginseng caramels, and sweet pumpkin chewies.
It was not quite an American Halloween - maybe “fusion Halloween” would be more appropriate. But when cultural exchange involves “brain surgery” on pumpkins, how can you go wrong?
November 1, 2007
Teaching in Korea
After reading this blog, a few people have asked whether I am actually doing any teaching here in Korea! Yes I am, and I love it. Teaching students whose second language is English, or students from non-American cultures, was barely touched upon in my doctoral training. This was a major oversight given the makeup of the American population. I am learning many crucial lessons here that I will be able to apply back in the United States.
In some ways, teaching here is no different than teaching in the U.S. There are some hard-working, diligent students with their eye on future success and there are some students with no clue why they are in college. Many students in Korea put in 15-18 hour school days from middle school onward (including Saturday classes) . Increasingly, children in wealthier families spend a year in the United States or Canada to master English. Since “school reputation” is the number one hiring criterion in Korea (60% of government officials and 70% of top company executives graduate from the “top 3″ universities), your score on the college entrance exam determines much of your future life. Pyeongtaek is not one of the top three. So my students are late-bloomers, bad test-takers, kids from less privileged schools and backgrounds or kids who simply wanted something other than the academic grind during their childhood.
Almost all of the students have studied English for 10 years, but most have only spoken it for 1 or 2 years and many have never spoken to a foreigner before. Their grasp of grammar is amazing, but also inhibiting to them as they deal with Americans’ highly ungrammatical common speech!
I have one class and two study groups; the latter are informal weekly meetings to discuss culture and practice English. Here are some windows into my teaching here.
1) In one study group, a few students were too shy and nervous to get out a coherent sentence. Since some were urban planning majors, we headed out to the green where I asked them to describe to me their favorite building on campus. Soon we were discussing what buildings should be torn down, where to put athletic fields and whether to save an orchard or build a gym instead. Focusing on content enabled them to move past their embarrasment about their English, which consequently improved.
2) In another study group, I asked students to bring in debate questions. One student asked whether or not Koreans should be getting plastic surgery to improve their job prospects. Another asked whom should we blame : inviduals who forge their degrees or the society that values degrees over ability. A third asked why Koreans were buying so many high-priced luxury items - whether to show off for others, or reassure themselves. Each debate led to questions about values and to comparisons with American culture. Cross-cultural understanding is at the heart of what I do here.
3) My class is on Race and Gender in America. It is fascinating to teach about race to a nation that has long defined itself as mono-racial, but which is rapidly becoming multicultural and multiracial. In addition, I am teaching “Asian-American” history to people who question the concept of “Asian”. My students wonder how I can like America so much, yet also be so clear about our racial fault lines and injustices. Discussing such complexity would be hard enough with native speakers - making it accessible in simpler English is my greatest challenge.
4) In class, the students discuss the reading in small groups. Small group discussion is rare in Korea, so the students love the chance to help each other with translation, debate the main points, and answer my discussion questions. In order to enable deeper discussion of content, I allow the students to discuss in Korean. This is a bit of a problem for me though - how do I tell if they are on track or getting the right answer if I cannot understand the conversation?! I have been amazed to discover that a little Korean and careful observation makes this perfectly feasible - a timely intervention here or there works perfectly. The students then present their answers in English, so I have a second chance to check and correct their work, just in case I misgauged the small group!
5) I try to get out with my students when I can, so I have taken one group to dinner and another to a cafe in town. As always the students teach me as much as I teach them. One group has two exchange students from Mexico in addition to my Korean students, so our cultural sharing takes on different depths. Once we went to a cafe to experience the hot new Korean fad - Dr. Fish. These little fish eat the dead skin off your feet and massage the capillaries. Not your usual history class, but we all learned a fair bit about China where the fish come from and Korea’s passion for the new.
Overall, teaching has been the easiest thing I have done here - I have years of practice and I love experimenting with teaching styles. But at times cultural differences are an issue. Professors are both elders (by age) and superiors (by status) and thus there are extensive rules for faculty-student interaction - none of which are obvious to me. Being a foreigner means those rules are modified for me, but the students are not sure how much or when. Even the question of name is an issue - am I Professor Salerno (American style), Salerno Professor (Korean style), Salerno Kyosu-nim (Korean words) or just Beth (as some other American professors are)? I opted for Professor Salerno. It is my American title (I am teaching American Studies after all) and I thought a little formality might make up for my complete ignorance of the other formal rules. It hasn’t. However, not knowing the rules has forced the students to articulate them. This allows us to discuss the differences between American and Korean universities.
Sometimes I do not know about the cultural issue until it is too late. In a lecture about the evils of plagiarism, I joked that I would flog students who copy from the internet. After students looked up the word in their electronic dictionaries I got very respectful and amazed looks. I later discovered corporal punishment is still legal in Korean schools (though it usually involves a ruler, not a cat o nine tails!). So once again I got to explain the differences between American and Korean schools.
In the end, that is the essence of my teaching style - even my ignorance is a teachable moment. Having humility and a willingness to listen have been the biggest assets I bring to my teaching (my friends will tell you I’m still working on the humility). As one student told me after class “I have learned a lot about America and a lot about Korea. This is really interesting.” Another slightly tipsy student told me at a recent department dinner, “You give me pride in my English and my thoughts - you listen, you understand, and you reply. Thank you.” I cannot ask for any more than this.
1 comment October 14, 2007
I think anyone who travels to a foreign country at some point asks the question, “Why am I here?” Perhaps they do not ask it in week two of a 40 week stay, but after 5 straight days of rain and three days of trying to arrange an internet connection with minimal Korean, I am asking.
The easy answer is that I have always wanted to live in another country, experience another culture, and the Fulbright program gave me that chance, complete with safety net. The Fulbright Program was established after World War II to promote international peace and understanding through academic exchanges and I am proud to continue that tradition in my small way. Rather than being a tourist, I get to be a productive member of South Korean society, supported by the U.S. State Department, the Korean American Educational Commission, and Pyeongtaek University.
My official duties are remarkably light. I teach one course this semester - Race and Gender in American Society - and I am currently setting up two study groups where students can meet with me once a week, talk about America and practice their English. Students are hungry for chances to speak English with a native speaker (though less hungry to ruin their GPA by actually taking my class!).
What I’m finding, however, is that my unofficial duty is to talk with people - to be a civilian American in South Korea. To listen when a faculty member takes the risk of speaking English to a stranger and tell them honestly that I understood every word. To share that Americans are even more afraid than Koreans to speak a foreign language with native speakers. To explain what Americans mean by “Asian” to people who have been controlled and invaded by China and Japan and thus do not see themselves as inherently similar to either.
Personally, my job is to experience - to simply experience. That is hard for a type A personality, always focused on the outcome, the product, the result. So I went to Seoul last weekend because I wanted to “check off” some of the places on my list of things to see - Namsangol’s Choson dynasty houses, Myeong-dong Catholic Cathedral, and Doksugun, one of 5 Royal palaces in the city. I walked a city of 9 million people (and far too many cars!) and gawked. Four lane highways packed with cars, twisting alleys full of shops, and everywhere, people breaking into English to help me find my way.
Other than a family from India and a couple from Germany, I was the only non-Asian I saw all day. Thousands of school children in identical uniforms, dozens of older men and women out walking in the rain, a few young couples (probably tourists from other Asian nations), but no single caucasian women. People stared openly until I greeted them with Annyeong Haseyo (hello) and then they broke into smiles and bowed. School children, male and female, giggled and practiced their English: “American?” “photo please!” “Good morning - how are you doing?”.
I realized that at least for some people that day I _was_ the experience. Even as I played tourist, my willingness to be stared at, to stop and speak English, to try speaking Korean - all mattered in a way I had never expected. I was told often before I left the United States ” to simply be open to the experience. It is not what you accomplish there, it is who you are that matters.” So I am being me. For the moment, that is why I am here.
September 5, 2007