A ‘wondrous stupefying magnificence’I guess it can be seen as a fate accompli of sorts that, five months into my stay in Seoul, I have yet to teach a single English lesson. (It’s either that or inexcusable laziness.) Instead, I’ve been contributing to the English-language machine in Korea via the written word ― editing, revising, proofreading and endlessly cutting and pasting.
A young Korean-born student, one year into a U.S. high school curriculum, needed help with a paper on D.H. Lawrence. I expected the usual glitches with subject-verb agreement; instead, I received an electronic draft with the following note: “My teacher said I need an argument. And evidence. And another body paragraph. So can you put in quotes where I need them and write a third paragraph for me?”
It wasn’t until halfway through firing back a knee-jerk ― and less than benign ― reminder about academic integrity that I realized the utter innocence of the writer, who was clearly unaware that her request was any more suspect than asking someone to go over her spelling.
So I went back, made sure her tenses were consistent, then added a postcript about why my assistance as asked for would benefit neither her nor her grades.
But more often than not, I’ve been asked to help Koreans navigate their way through a labyrinthine lexicon.
This fall, I looked over an essay for a gifted artist applying to study abroad. Though she had a natural ear for poetry, her expressed thoughts and emotions, bogged down by a limited vocabulary, fell short. Frustration drove her straight to the thesaurus, and a talented writer was lured astray by phrases such as “wondrous stupefying magnificence.”
I came to further sympathize with this frustration while looking over correspondence drafted by my father’s Korean colleagues, who knew that “It is however nonetheless the knowledge of the fact of the possibility that...” didn’t quite sound ready to be faxed over to New York firms. Yet they couldn’t shake the feeling that deleting words would detract from the power of their ideas.
I lack the discipline to instruct grade-schoolers on the phonetics of “r” and “l.” But with the written language, it feels less like a tutorial and more like simple collaboration; together, with their ideas and my bank of diction and syntax, we arrive at a mutual goal. The wrinkles in the brow uncrease, a sigh is released: “That’s exactly what I meant.”
by Kim Sun-jung