Dispatch from South Korea: Time for travel and reflection

October 29, 2008

Editor's Note: This is a continuing series of dispatches from Luke Zeller, who graduated in June with a bachelor of science in secondary education (English and communications) from the College of Education. A Schreyer Scholar, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English as a foreign language in South Korea. He arrived in early July, and spent the first six weeks in an intensive Korean language and culture orientation at Kangwon University in Chuncheon. Afterwards, he was placed with a host family to begin his teaching at a community school until July.

Oct. 10

I have been doing quite a bit of traveling around South Korea over the last week, which has been a lot of fun. The high school was having their mid-terms, so I did not have to go to school.

Last Thursday, I was getting ready for a long weekend in the beautiful city of Gyeongju. Fulbright hosted a conference for all of us in the English teaching program, and it was the first time for many of us to see each other since our summer orientation. It was good to see everyone since we have all gotten along so well.

I even gave a little presentation about some reflections about our role as native English teachers that went over pretty well. My new friends could connect with many of the difficulties of our teaching position. It is tough to teach English when most students have learned to fear and dislike English. These institutions called schools usually do a pretty good job reinforcing the idea that you do not know very much with constant testing and topics in class that are irrelevant to students' lives. South Korea is certainly not the only place where this happens.

This fear of English is certainly apparent in South Korea. I have had instances where people would avoid engaging in conversation with me even if I try to speak Korean. I am a representation of English that many people have learned to always feel vulnerable around. I have also had Koreans eagerly approach me to speak, but I feel that more often, communication with me is avoided.

Well, anyway, my inquiry into teaching in Korea continues. For the most part, I just want to make the students feel good about their English abilities and develop their interest in learning about different cultures beyond their own. I have been realizing that my class is inherently a class on culture.

Well that is enough of a rant on education. The rest of our weekend in Gyeongju was really nice. Gyeongju is an ancient city that was the capital of the Silla kingdom for 992 years. I do not think there are any American cities with that kind of history. One of the most beautiful spots was the Anapji Pond, which was originally an area for royalty, but has since become a public area to inspire many writers, artists, and people just going for a walk. Another cool spot was the Seokguram Grotto, which kind of looked like a Korean hobbit-hole. The Grotto was a temple built by King Kim Daesung for his parents of a former life; yes, I wrote that correctly, his parents of a former life.

After Gyeongju, I made it down to Pusan, a popular city on the coast. It is a tourist destination with many hotels and nice beaches where people set up cheap fireworks at night. I made it in time for the Pusan Film Festival, which is a weeklong festival with movies literally showing all day at all the theatres in Pusan. I got to see a movie produced by the National Human Rights Commission of South Korea. The topic of the film happened to be the Korean education system! It left me with a lot to think about. Now, I am back in Hwasun to teach again.

Oct. 17

This week, I'd like to talk about my teaching a bit more.

The best way to imagine my teaching position is to think of it like this. Imagine in high school, you had a scheduled free period in your day. Do you remember how valuable those free periods were? You could just let loose and relax, catch up on some much needed cramming, or just chat with a friend to take your mind off the pressures of school. Now, imagine some strange foreigner invading this free space trying to teach you something that you do not really enjoy. How would you react?

I do understand where my students are coming from. During one class, we had a discussion about what students value. Many of the students said simply, "Time." The time that they have for themselves to simply be teenagers is infrequent and short. For my classes, therefore, I just try to make it worthwhile for the students who are listening, and I do know that all of the students do recognize whether or not I am making an effort.

My effort has led to some more positive experiences I have had at school. Yes, I have 450 students, each of whom I only see once per week; therefore, the odds for me to be anything more than a novelty in most of their lives are not so great, but I have been able to connect with a few of my students, which helps to sustain me as a teacher here. One student in particular has been a major boost for me.

One of my classes has been disruptive since I started teaching. I had often let myself get frustrated in the class, which would lead to me not teaching as effectively as I could. In addition, I recognized one girl who was clearly uncomfortable with the way the rest of the class had been acting. From my first class, she has made every attempt to listen to me and contribute to the class. This past week, the class was heading in a familiar direction; however, instead of succumbing to the dismissive attitude of the class, I responded by teaching confidently and managed to have some fun in the class. I smiled and taught to the students who were listening and even got some of the attention of students who were chatting and messing around. The one girl who had been making an effort all along was certainly enthused by my renewed energy, and after the class she rushed up to me smiling to thank me, "I am Ji-Won, please remember me!"

My mouth about hit the floor.

As long as I am making an effort and try to have fun in the class, some students do respond. At the same time, I do know that the other students are observing me. Their minds are always active, and they are learning all the time. I know my teaching here is not in vain. I do not mean to be negative about my experience in Korea because I am happy to be here, but I also think it is important to paint an accurate picture of the school system, especially in the ways that it is similar to America.

I should also mention some of the things that I am beginning to miss from home. In a word: Cheesesteak. Tonight, I went out to dinner with my host family and we had some "beef." As soon as the beef touched my lips, I knew that this could have been on an Amoroso roll with some cheese and grilled onions and some ketchup, but, instead, sadly, I was putting this slab of steak on a Romaine lettuce leaf with a sliced garlic clove. The irony was tearing me apart.

It is pretty cool, where I am in a rural part of the country, to watch the traditional process for harvesting rice. Once off the stalk, they lay it on the sidewalks for a day or two to dry it out and wrap it as you can see in the picture. Then they pack it in big bags and haul it off.

Hope all is well. Take care.

  • Harvested rice laid out on the sidewalk to dry

    IMAGE: Luke Zeller

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Last Updated November 18, 2010