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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Let's Talk about English

I have to apologize for my absence from blog world lately, the homework load is proving to be a little more than I expected, and I started doing my tutoring this week for my scholarship. To sum up, I have been granted the opportunity to take part in the Global Leaders Scholarship. This scholarship gives native English speakers to chance to talk to non-native English speakers in a comfortable and stimulating environment. The university offers the E-lounge here, a free service to any student here at Chung-Ang who wants to improve his/her English. (keep in mind that English tutors in this part of the country typically earn up to $50/hour for their services!) Needless to say, I am excited to take part in this awesome opportunity to get to know some new people, and we have been having some great conversations! Another awesome part of the scholarship gives students the options to volunteer in an elementary school right off campus. I have been placed in a kindergarten class of 10-14 children, some of who speak English, and some who don't. Isn't this difficult you may ask? I have to say that after almost a month of living here in Korea, I am hardly phased at the concept of someone not speaking English, in fact...I expect it. What I am fascinated by however, is that humans find endless ways to communicate. Often I find myself using hand motions in restaurants and grocery stores, just hoping the cashier catches my drift. In my kindergarten class, children always will find a way to tell you what they need to...even if it means just taking your hand and dragging you to what they want to show you. So why is everyone here so hell-bent on learning English? 
Honestly, this is a topic even I grapple with when I consider my future job prospects and the advantages/ consequences. On the one hand, English tutoring is an extremely lucrative and...well, easy living here in Korea, as well as any other relatively wealthy country that considers English to be a necessary education. Anyplace you can find industrialization + money, you are bound to find an English learning community. All this gets me thinking however, what exactly are the consequences to English becoming a globalized language? Are I simply becoming a linguistic imperialist by teaching my native language to willing learners? This questions nags my mind often, especially when I consider that I am very possibly replacing a native's future career in education. It is a well known fact that parents here insist their children learn English. It is the only way to secure good job prospects, as well as academic respect, and a native English speaker is almost always guaranteed a job in teaching English over a non-native speaker. The problem is however, that the issue always weighs around money. While English is taught K-12 in public schools here for free, parents still attempt to have their children be the best and brightest in every subject, including and especially English. Those families who have money to pay for continuing English education classes, private English tutors and trips abroad to English-speaking countries consequently have a better chance at succeeding in a globalized world because of their enhanced English skills, and those that don't have little hope of standing out in such a competitive job-market....how very archaic, and well...un-American. Aren't we taught that no matter your rank or social status, you can rise above it and become successful despite your circumstances? This is true in a world where English is the first language, but sadly...the opposite is hardly ever true. Non-native English speakers both in their native countries and abroad are praised for having excellent English skills, but when an American chooses to pursue language study in say, Japanese or German...the response is often something akin to..."oh really, how interesting! but what are you going to do with that?" We like to think that we have learned from our past days of imperialistic conquests in which we dominate other cultures through forcing our religions, our cuisines, our cultural traditions onto them...but truly, how is linguistic imperialism any different? I won't profess to have an answer to any of this, but I will tell you how I have come to cope with my own personal guilt with teaching English abroad...and the answer is simple: quid pro quo. I have relieved my guilt by making a promise to myself that I will never teach English in another country without at least trying to learn the native language myself. I will not pretend that my semester of learning Korean, and feebly being able to sound out Hangul letters  even compares to the hours upon hours students here spend trying to become fluent in English....but, it's something I tell my students all the time: it doesn't have to be perfect, you just have to be able to communicate, and as humans... we always seem to find a way. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Korean People Don't Say Bless You

Before I got here, a lot of people warned me that Korean people are very unfriendly. Since being here, I can't exactly dispel this stereotype, but I can't exactly confirm it either. I will say that it's not so much that they are unfriendly people, but that they aren't overtly friendly. If you look lost on the street, it's very unlikely they will offer you directions, but if you ask politely, they will do their best to assist you... unless of course they don't speak English, in which case they will wave you off, or attempt to ignore you. Oh! and don't be surprised if when walking down the street, and you see a group of people taking up the entire sidewalk, without moving over or attempting to make room for you to pass; they will nonchalantly bump shoulders with you, with no mention of "excuse me!" or "oh, I'm sorry, did I bump you?"
Korean people stare... a lot!  I have to say that this country has a severe case of xenophobia, they neither welcome nor appreciate foreigners coming to their country- especially those who don't bother to learn their culture, or speak their language. I have become the racial anomaly in almost all my classes... professors constantly point out that I am an American, and in regards to the English language..."oh! perhaps Morgan can shed some light on this issue, since she is a native English speaker!" (as if I have the right to speak for the entire English language, because I am but one native English speaker) Being an outsider has become a way of life, and I'll be honest...it's very uncomfortable, and very disconcerting.
Now, before I get labeled into the ethnocentric American role who feels the need to stereotype everyone ("all Asian people are so rude!") I took the time to discuss this matter with a native Korean. This girl has spent two years in the U.S. as an exchange student, and upon her return to Korea, she herself is having trouble adjusting to her very own cultural norms. She explained to me, that life here in Korea is a matter of vying for space- in the same way that New Yorkers vie for real estate. This whole city is crowded with thousands of people all trying to get somewhere and be somebody. Competition becomes a way of life. So, when someone bumps you in the street without apologizing, it probably isn't that he did it on purpose to peeve you- he is simply asserting his space, or, on the other hand, he is so used to bumping shoulders with people, he hardly notices it anymore. He must be crowded with other Koreans in the elevator, on the bus, in his cubicle at work- even his house is most likely awkwardly jammed up against another, for the lack of space in Seoul is growing every day. In regards to race, it is true that Korean people are prejudiced, but part of this attributes to the space thing as well. For one thing, foreigners are few and far between here, since Korea is a largely homogeneous society. Another opinion might be that they view foreigners as invaders of their space- in the same way that indigenous people saw incoming settlers as invaders of their land. Korea is a rapidly changing society, much like the rest of Asia, so all of these cultural norms are slowly changing. You will notice the younger generation is slightly more apt to befriend an non-Korean than a person of the older generation...and this is how society changes, however slowly it may seem.
So...allow me to put my own, slightly positive spin on this. Back at home, I deal with people known as "foreigners" all the time. Some have only been in the U.S. a few weeks, some a few years, and some all their lives...and they constantly try to express to me their frustrations, their longings for home, their difficulty learning the language, their inability to just "fit in"- even simple everyday tasks become a burden; tasks such as, getting a job, finding a way to get to that job without the ability to obtain a driver's license, buying groceries...everything becomes foreign, unfamiliar.
And so we learn humility. We learn to ask for help when we need it, and we learn compassion. How can I, after living in a foreign country for a mere 1 week, presume to understand how others, who may have lived in the U.S. their entire lives, are treated as outsiders, because perhaps, their accent, their color, or habits that, to them, are simply a part of everyday culture. I cannot presume to know this. I am given, however, a glimpse into their lives. The obstacles I am forced to overcome here, everyday, may later serve as my motivation as a teacher for those eager to learn, and eager to be accepted.
So... next time you are at the grocery store, or at the bank, and sense yourself feeling boiling frustration- "How can you live in our country, and not speak our language?" ask yourself- how many times have you visited a foreign country and expressed this same annoyance that "ugh, no one here speaks any English!" yet... you are in their country? Remember to have compassion. Chances are, these people are trying to learn, and overcome great difficulty every day doing simple tasks. It's not easy to be different, an outsider, but if we were all the same, how boring it would be!