[Overseas view] The rewards of teaching in Korea

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[Overseas view] The rewards of teaching in Korea

It’s September, the university semester is starting and I should be putting together my teaching materials. But for the first time in five years, I have no classroom. I miss it.
Teaching in Korea is different from teaching in the United States, and for me, at least, it was more rewarding. Partly, that is, because at Yonsei University I taught graduate students in the School of International Studies, who are more mature and more motivated than American undergraduates, whose priorities often are beer and the opposite sex.
My American students were polite, well-brought-up youngsters who treated me respectfully enough. But there is no comparison to the worship a professor gets ― at least to his face ― in Confucian Korea. One student signed his last e-mail to me “your disciple FOR EVER.” That was four years ago, but I assume he is still my disciple.
Reverence has its drawbacks. It is extremely difficult to get a Korean student to volunteer an idea or opinion in class, evidently because they have been schooled on the notion that teachers know more than students, so the student’s job is to shut up and note the nuggets of wisdom that drop from the professor’s lips.
American children are told from infancy that their every thought and action is a precious token of their marvelous uniqueness. The problem in an American classroom often is to get students to shut up with their empty fatuities.
When you have American (or European) students in a class with Korean (or other Asian) students, as is common at Yonsei GSIS, the two problems collide. The Western students dominate classroom discussion; the Koreans look pained because they know they are supposed to say something but they don’t know how. And both groups suspect that when the grades are posted, they will face discrimination.
The Koreans approach the awkward issue through my TA, or teaching assistant, a fellow grad student. The students, she informs me, worry that the Western students will monopolize the “A” grades as they monopolize the classroom discussion. We are studying just as hard, they say, but it is not our habit to talk in class.
The Western students confront me directly and make the opposite point. We understand that because of their culture Koreans find it hard to speak out in class, but we don’t feel they should get absolution from serious graduate-level study, which is about developing, articulating and defending your ideas. In this class, we are the only ones doing that.
I sympathized with both viewpoints, but I made a point of reminding my Asians that they were preparing for international careers, in which they would be speaking English and working with people from all over the world. Their bosses would expect initiative from them, not passive note-taking.
Curiously enough, at grading time it all seemed to work out. Some people who talked a lot really didn’t have much to say. Some who were silent as tombstones resurrected their intelligence in the final exams. I never felt that anyone got an “A” from me or was denied it solely because of cultural differences.
Since most students were operating in a language foreign to them, I naturally collected a sheaf of bloopers:
“It is important to starch your muscles before exercise.”
“Korea people eat many kitchen’s meat.”
The meat of many kitchens? It seems the student got her syllables reversed: she meant chi-ken, not ki-chen. And also I need to do a lesson on the difference between “many” (plural) and “much” (singular).
Then again, who am I to criticize? Once in a language drill about shopping, I told my Korean teacher that I had bought a new bride. “Oh?” the teacher said, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “Does your wife know about this?” (Oh, yeah. Shinbu is bride. I meant shoes: shinbal.)
Language students are well advised to follow Martin Luther’s advice: “Sin boldly!”
For most of us, making mistakes is the surest way to learn. But students, especially Korean students, don’t like to make mistakes. So I showed them my Korean notebook, whose copious blunders had been unforgivingly highlighted and annotated in red pen by Lee Seonsaeng-nim, my teacher.
Whether the notebook made it easier for the students to face my red marks on their papers I don’t know; but they laughed merrily to hide their dismay that their professor was such an incapable Korean student.
One assignment asked the students to describe a person they knew well ― a mother, perhaps, or a roommate. Many funny, affectionate and touching descriptions of grandmothers, little brothers and best friends came to me; other tales were harrowing or poignant.
One student had to take over the family’s small importing business when her mother became gravely ill with cancer. Young and inexperienced as she was ― about 21 at the time ― she could not cope with the financial crisis of 1997. Both the business and her mother weakened. At last the bank would advance no more money and bankruptcy was certain.
From the bank she went to the hospital where, a few hours later, her mother died in her arms. Only when she filled out the post-mortem paperwork, and had to date it, did she realize that all this had happened on her birthday.
A young man’s mother dreamed of visiting China. It seemed possible when her church group organized a group tour, but suddenly the mother announced that she could not go because she was “too old.” Knowing that the woman was perfectly healthy, the student probed until he learned that his mother was afraid to go. She was illiterate; in a strange situation, she would not know what was going on or what to do.
“Mother, I will take you,” the student said, and signed them both up for the tour. Because of the timing, he had to drop out of school for a semester, but his mother loved her trip to China.
A third student despised his father, who always smelled of fish from his work at the docks. The family ate nothing but fish, even for breakfast. The boy was so ashamed of his fish-smelling father that if he were with friends when his father cycled past, he would turn away and pretend not to see the old man.
Now the son appreciates that his father kept the family together and fed. They had fish for breakfast because the father got most of his pay not in money but unsold fish. And he knows, as the first in his family to get an education, that his father’s hard work and sacrifice created the possibility.
Stories of human love and stories that remind us how far Korea has come in just a generation or two: such stories are the great reward of teaching.

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and former professor at Yonsei GSIS.

by Harold Piper
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