Dispatch from South Korea: Luke Zeller begins Fulbright as teacher

July 30, 2008

Luke Zeller 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 will spend the first six weeks in an intensive Korean language and culture orientation at Kangwon University in Chuncheon. Afterwards, he will be placed with a host family to begin his teaching at a community school until July 2009.

Week 1:

I have touched down in (South) Korea and have finished my first week of orientation. I am meeting a bunch of other Americans doing the same thing, which is cool and has really delayed the culture shock. We are still in a major bubble where we can easily find other English speakers with similar interests; there are 75 total doing this program. It is the most that Fulbright sends to any country. 

So far, everything has been a lot of fun. For one thing, they love karaoke here. They call it norebong (with a rolled "r"), and it is kind of a surreal experience. You go and pay about $2 each to get a room for your whole group for about an hour. Then you enter this karaoke haven with three microphones, a couple tambourines and a big screen. Wow.

Beyond the norebong, (South) Korea has been wonderful. The people have been very kind and accommodating. I am currently staying at a university for a six-week orientation program where we are taking language classes everyday and preparing to teach English. I am actually one of the only education majors here, and I think the only English education major, which kind of surprised me. There are several people with ESL experience, however.

We are meeting many of the local university students who are all very excited to hang out with us to show us around and practice their English. They immediately ask you for your age after your name so they can see where they stand in relation to you. Age is very important here; there are terms for what you would call someone who is your elder, even by just one year. It will take some time to adjust to the hierarchical mentality here, especially after having just been in Sweden, where no one is any better than the next person, and if you are delusional enough to think so, you need to be talked to. 

I also will need to get used to bowing much more. It is called "insa" and is a sign of respect, mostly to your elders. To those who are much older or are in a position of authority, you insa especially low, about a 90 degree bow. I certainly have a lot to learn from this culture. 

I am presently in the city of Chuncheon at Kangwon University. I will later be placed with a family anywhere in Korea when my teaching starts us.

That is all I have right now. I took a great hike today. We passed through a Buddhist temple and went really high. It was beautiful. 

Week 3:

Another two weeks have flown by for me. They are continuing to keep us very busy with Korean language for four hours a day, meetings in the afternoon, and, now, we are even doing a bit of practice teaching. They have an "English Camp" for Korean students at the university where we are studying. The students are supposed to speak English at all times. The camp is giving us a great opportunity get some experience working with Korean students, which is a benefit for all of us as we prepare to be teachers here.

I had one of my lessons earlier today, and I was quite a bit relieved. I wanted to test the pedagogical approach that makes me most comfortable, and the students responded very well. I was concerned before because I really like to teach through questions and open-ended, critical discussion. Before, I was not sure how that would work in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom, but I was encouraged today by the ability of the students to engage in some of their own thinking. It takes quite a bit a prying, but it seems possible, which has made me very happy. 

They have said that in (South) Korea, students are accustomed to a traditional, rote memorization style of learning that stems from Confucianism. The common assumption is that the teacher (or sawn-saing-nim) has all of the "right" answers and has the responsibility of teaching the students everything they need to know and how they should know it. This seems to correlate with the hierarchical nature of the society here that I mentioned last time. 

I will have some significant barriers to break down to have the students critically thinking with me instead of me critically thinking for them, which they are much more used to. These issues were certainly prevalent in America and Sweden when I was student teaching, although the Swedish students probably had the most questions.  

The bowing that I mentioned before has begun to feel a bit more comfortable. It is really just a simple courtesy that you offer the people you meet. The hierarchal nature of (South) Korea is certainly present, but it is not uncomfortable. I even really like greeting my teachers in the morning with a bow and an "ahn-yang-haseo." They always return the greeting.

Also, last weekend, we had a really nice time at Mount Songnisan. Songnisan has a renowned Buddhist temple that was absolutely stunning. The temple area sits in a kind of valley amongst really stunning mountains. The coolest part of this visit was the chance to witness the Buddhist service in the Beomjonggak, or the Bell House. They have four different instruments that they play in order to help soothe the souls of all the sentient (or conscious) beings of the world. Each instrument is played for a different group of beings. I have picture of a monk playing the Beopgo, which is intended for all quadrupeds, which includes humans of course. A Buddhist belief is that all beings are capable of enlightenment. Through their chants and questioning, they hope to attain this enlightenment. Most Buddhists do not consider the Buddha a god. This surprised me, especially when I saw this gigantic Buddha monument.

Another great part of the weekend was the Korean meals. They consist of tons of side dishes and a main entree that is shared between four people. I have already become much better at chopsticks. There is no motivation like hunger.

The rest of the weekend was very relaxing as we prepared to jump right back into work this week. The week was fairly strenuous, but I have gotten through it, and we have most of the weekend to just hang out. They have been taking very good care of us here, and I really cannot imagine a better way to be introduced to a country. 

  • This is Buddha monument at the Buddhist temple at Mount Songnisan in South Korea.

    IMAGE: Luke Zeller

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Last Updated November 18, 2010