Saturday, July 30, 2011

Coming to Grips with Maturity in a Changing Environment

The monsoon rains of July turns into the sweltering heat of August, and the life of everyone began to progress again after going through half of laid-back summer vacations amid definite signs of lethargic slowness. For some, it is already a season of tearful goodbyes, and for some, the tears of separation are also mixed with anxiety, and hope, for the somewhat unknown, yet exciting future. The same faces and personalities, so familiar after what seems like an eternity of constant interaction, begin to disappear one by one, without any promise of future reunions...

People speak of their "best friends forever," they speak of love that last forever, and they vow to never leave others behind or alone. Unfortunately for all of us who chose to spend different parts of our lives at different corners of the Earth with completely different groups of people, such so-called promises can be nothing beyond empty words. We have have to go. We just have to. New chapters of our lives await our composition, and their obstacles and joys await our confrontation.

And then, new "best friends forever," new "love that last forever," and any other promises that will supposedly last forever will be generated...in a brand-new environment with brand-new acquaintances. Our current "BFFs" and "lovers," as new stories blossom in new lands, will inevitably retreat to a dark, forgotten corner of our minds, rediscovered temporarily only in the most coincidental of circumstances. It is not that we are "traitors" with short memory spans or shallow feelings, its just that all of us must look ahead to the storms brewing in front of us, not the big waves that we somehow already braved through.

And look ahead, we shall and we must. As those who chose challenging themselves over being raised in a non-changing, all-too-familiar environment, we chose the path of incurring often unknown and surprising risks rather than a path of a set-pattern life and refusal of self-transformations. Whether it be the first move or the hundredth, those who depart should expect no warm embraces at their destinations, only endless hidden prejudices, cold hostile stares from ignorant locals, and a money-hungry, inflexible bureaucracy that seek to capitalize on the "new guy's" lack of familiarity with the new environment.

When the unknown ahead is so unfriendly, especially when compared to the warmness of where we are now, the extreme anxiety is completely understandable. I have even heard of many who pick up bad habits such as smoking just to get over the fear of facing the future. But everyone seems to forget one thing: the warmness of where we are now is not endemic; it is won through our personal and collective efforts against the awkwardness and mutual coldness that undoubtedly were the initial conditions.

If we can all succeed in making tough conditions friendly, just once, we know that next time, and next next time, and every time the same kinds of situation occur in the future, we certainly can do it again. The sometimes financially costly and socially embarrassing mishaps in endless trial-and-errors that we all go through to make the "friendliness" happen become, above anything we learn in books or from boring teachers at hagwons, our most treasured knowledge, which indeed can and need to be used everywhere for our very survival.

Maturity, to state simply, is the gradual mastery of such knowledge. If what we consider "childishness," with all its silly humor and un-adult-like high levels of energy, can get one to successfully find one's sustainable place in society, I do not see why it cannot be the very definition of maturity for that particular person. But without painful social experiments in changing social circles, perhaps nobody will ever come to the realization of what maturity can be.

See every separation as a step closer to finding that personalized way of becoming truly mature. And see every new anxious foray into the socially unknown as an opportunity to sharpen those skills of "maturity." Every painful unfulfilled love and every awkward first meeting must not be avoided. Turn every goodbye into a hello, and a person's prime spot in the complex human society will naturally be found.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Implementing Blatant "America-centrism" Abroad

The existence of Hollywood as a global cultural product is nothing new. With ample use of special effects, combat scenes, explosions, beautiful people, they seek to bombard people with adrenaline rush at every turn. They are saturated with universal values: the good triumphs over evil, true love survives all adversities, and that general perverted craving (among people of every background) for seeing unending violence unfolding before their eyes at a safe distance away. Combining all those elements, plus all of cash for marketing, Hollywood has tapped into the consumer market of people around the globe.

And as far as cravings for simple violence and romance goes, the recently released Transformers 3 could not have been more perfect. Shown with the complementary motion chairs and 3-D glasses in the most high-tech rendition of motion picture technology to date, the movie promised to wow all the senses of the audience. And after watching the midnight show in Seoul, I have absolutely nothing to criticize in terms of the overall "sensual" experience. By cutting out the boring details of a coherent story-line and focusing on the collapsing buildings and explosions, the movie left all of us dazzled with excitement.

Yet, the issue with the movie was whatever that was left of the story-line that they did not bother to cut out. The premise of the story was that the "bad guys" has returned and threatened to milk Earth for its 6 billion "slave laborers." Human beings, along with their robotic allies, have to fight back to save the planet from complete destruction. And guess who represents the "whole world of human beings"...yes, America does. The movie was essentially Americans vs robots, taking place in a bombed out Chicago.

The rest of world, well, only show up vaguely. There are scenes of American intelligence officers heading to the Ukraine for investigations and collecting secret Soviet documents. And there was a largely symbolic scene of the bad guys' message being broadcast in front of a full-house UN General Assembly. Yet, at the end, it was the doing of America (perhaps on behalf of the entire world) that pushed the story along. They were the ones hosting the good robots in a so-called military alliance, and they were the ones talking and fighting the bad guys when things went wrong.

All this in Korea, a country with a history of love-hate relationship with America. The presence of American military and cultural influence is in no way deniable here, and the country certainly in many ways owes her very existence to the American presence. Yet at the same time, a determined and vocal anti-American sentiment permeates the society, not the least due to the supposed destruction of traditional Korean values because of American presence. A movie that exaggerates American heroism has to leave a very bitter taste in the mouth of such people (if they bother to go see it).

And because Americans are involved at every turn of the movie, pieces of American culture had to flair up. There were just too many American-style jokes throughout the movie, and they were, unfortunately, given complete silence treatment by the Korean audience while the Americans in the audience laughed away. Without understanding the occasionally sarcastic and cynical comic relief, the movie would be just another completely coldhearted shoot-em-up that foreign audience generally associate American films with.

To become more American (i.e. more "cool," "beautiful," "heroic" like the characters in the movie), the local youth will come out of the movie trying even harder to learn English and American culture so they can understand all those "funny" jokes intertwined with the movie's story-line. After all, in many ways, what Hollywood is to America is what Korean Wave is to Korea. It is the physical illustration of "I want to be just like them because they are so cool." America's image, at least for some, is once again boosted, and all of us Americans (at least nominally) are benefited.

Yet, at the same time, we have to wonder just how sustainable such image-boosting effects really are. Looking the movie a little deeper would show us that because America represents ll human beings, her imprudence in policy-making and military actions did bring devastation to the entire world. And looking in real life, the negative consequences of American leadership across the globe has certainly seen its lion's share of negative consequences for many an innocent people in otherwise stable (if not "free" by American definition) parts of the world.

Beating outer space robots bent on destroying our planets can surely unite all of us Earthlings and make everyone appreciate American heroism and leadership. But real life is just too far from that dreamy world. As Americans continue to go around the world making their sarcastic jokes and touting their global leadership, the reaction could be as likely to be one of irritation and irksomeness as one of appreciation and hope for imitation. A few Hollywood blockbusters like Transformers may not be enough to halt such increase in negative reactions.

Bureaucracy and Authority: How to Anger the Innocent for Absolutely Nothing

Many an intellectual out there tend to argue how the ability to form complex yet efficient organizations gave human beings the ability to efficiently execute complex projects. The ability to divide up work to different specialized tasks shared among many people is the pinnacle of human institutional achievement; it is the one thing, perhaps alongside the ability to communicate complex ideas linguistically, that set human beings apart from mere animals out there.

And modern society, with new technologies and new demands propping out everyday, has taken that gift of organization to a whole new level. Every few people one meet in life would form an organization, whether it is non-profit or a small business, carrying out incomprehensibly small projects with extremely vague and dubious purposes. And every few people that one meets in an organization would have some sort of rank, denoting the place within the command structure just as complex as the web of organizations out there.

Certainly, with the proliferation of organizations, there also emerged simultaneously a proliferation of hierarchies, of organizationally recognized “authorities,” i.e. the People with the Power. With different level of authorities set in place among ubiquitous organizations, it feels as if the entire human society, from the hospital that one first sees the Earth and the graveyard at which one departs it, has become stratified to the point that it is absolutely impossible to avoid any sort of bureaucracy when doing anything.

Ah, yes, bureaucracy. That has been my pet peeve for the past few months. From the long time setting up a bank account in Japan to just simply being a lowly presence within an extreme corporate type of it has generated so much frustration that I decided to go back to the idealistic ivy tower that is grad school just to avoid the Hierarchy for the time-being. But, like I said just now, there really is not a place in human society anymore that is completely free from bureaucracy, and in the process of getting to the idealistic grad school, I still have to deal with it.

The road to London has been made quite difficult, frustrating, and even more expensive than it already is by the recent rejection of my student visa here in Korea. The reasoning is that I have insufficient funds in my bank account, a reason that is made all the more ironic considering now they are asking this poor guy to pay another 450 bucks to submit a brand new application. Well, at least it would give me something to do and worry about when I get back to San Diego at the end of August.

The most frustrating aspect of the whole 450-bucks-went-down-the-drain experience was the fact that NO ONE at the UK Border Agency actually said anything to me when they realized that I had insufficient funds in the bank account. They simply decided to send me a text message to pick up my visa (as if it is mundanely completed) at the Seoul office, only to surprise me with an envelope enclosing a “Refusal of Entry” letter...No refund is possible and the appeal process is told to have a validity of 28 days starting the day of rejection WHILE taking around a month to actually complete...

The inflexibility of such bureaucratic process is only made worse when one tries to introduce some sort of flexibility within the existing system. At the whim of those in the positions of authority, those at the bottom who are trying their best to break free of the relentless rigidity is immediately scolded and pushed aside, forcing them to once again conform to the status quo and abandoning any further true-hearted attempts to make themselves heard.

Even in education, where idealism often trumps what is practical, and rebelliousness often successfully force long-established organizations to adapt, the bureaucracy, unfortunately, is still often the long-term winner. Even in our little camp in Chuncheon, there are often occurrences of administrators scolding the staff, and the staff scolding the students, in ways and for reasons that I, as the foreign teacher/observer, can only feel to be completely inappropriate and utterly incomprehensible. Well, I suppose sometimes the bureaucracy just wants to roar, without any particular purpose in mind besides keeping the bureaucracy itself intact.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Struggles of Communicating with “Real” Koreans in the “Real” Korea

Another weekend and another train trip back to Seoul. Sitting at the bench on the platform of Chuncheon Station, waiting for the next train to the metropolis, I am becoming more and more anxious to whether these trips are becoming some sort of emotional escapist behaviors out of the real Korea that I was so excited to see and live within. Chuncheon, for me and as well as all students and teachers, has become a place we are forced to be during the weekends.

To be perfectly honest, I, among all people, have been struggling to find my social place within the enclosed environment that is our camp. As Korean continues to entrench its position as the official language of the camp, those who are struggling with understanding of the language, whether it be the foreign teachers or some students who grew up outside Korea, have been feeling the continued spiral toward social isolation.

And what the most irritating in the situation is just how little effort the Korean staff, who, supposedly being the bridges that connect the teachers with the students, have been expending to communicate with the teachers. Being shy when speaking English is one thing, but often times, the teachers who do not speak Korean at all can literally feel themselves being completely ignored by the staff unless the teachers make the effort to communicate by sign or body language.

Unfortunately, the more I try to imply such irritation in public, the more the staff attempts to isolate the teachers. As they stoop down to the levels of the students and make every effort to become “part” of the them, they inadvertently have let the teachers, somewhat hated for strictness, known that they, the staff, no matter what they say superficially to “push” the students, are actually on the students’ side if and when conflicts between the teachers and the students arise.

To buck such a trend, I have tried, have REALLY tried, to connect with the Korean staff at a deeper level, beyond that superficial relationship as coworkers. Every weekend, I participated in their habit of end-of-the-week alcohol imbibing, hoping that the drinks will somehow open them up for more communication. Was I so wrong! The alcohol only served to make them more talkative, in Korean, isolating me further as the others laugh up a storm about something that they do not even bother to try interpreting.

At the same time, the “real” characters and the “real” cliques of the students are really beginning to display themselves on the surface, threatening to destroy whatever that is left of the emotional unity we have at the camp. As the students participate in more outside-the-classroom activities, they have become more of the real people that they are rather than the studying machines that the camp administrators are forcing them to become.

And nothing would be more expressive of the difference in personalities than a night of singing at the karaoke box. Those who are too shy to sing felt uneasy the whole night being pushed by the thoughtless staff to sing, furthering destroying their self-confidence. And those who are boisterous grabbed whatever opportunities they can to show off their... well...boisterousness, selfishly pushing aside the song requests of the others in the process. And those whose cliques broke apart as their close associates went home for the weekend, well, just sat there feeling out of place.

Starting next week, the second half of the classes begin, and the classmates reshuffle. But unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of new entries and early leaves, the roster of the camp does not at all change. In a way, I do feel sorry for the new students who have to start out in the new environment already full of underlying social groupings and conflicts, but at the same time, I just hope certain irritations do not boil over and push certain conflicts to the surface...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Witnessing Social Interactions in a Closed Microcosm

With this week drawing to a close, the isolated boot camp at Chuncheon has officially passed its "1/4 completed" mark. As the students began to get accustomed to the study environment, schedule, and the routines of daily life here in the camp, we all have began to shift attention to things that are much more conventional in any social environment. As the same group of people interact everyday, they are bound of get to know each other deeply, and with the knowledge, a whole new level of communication beyond "Lets play" and "Lets study" sprout among the populace.

And with the increased communication comes increased drama. The stories of who likes who, who hates who abound, and precisely because no one has anything else going on in their lives besides studying/preparing for the SATs, such "exciting" rumors spread like wildfire, often leading to intricate subtleties in relationship among individuals and social subgroups. Well on the surface everything looks dandy, with most of the kids and us the staff getting along incredibly well, underneath that facade, a whole new world has been created and is being expanded...very fast.

And speaking of social grouping, it is interesting to note how a certain hierarchy has been established among the students to determine the "pecking order" among even the kids whose age difference amount to little more than a few months. With the closed environment and constant monitoring being major obstacles to outward expression of rank within the said social hierarchy, the local "leaders of the packs" are still somehow determined through an extensive, non-stopping verbal exchange supplemented by performance during sports activities on Tuesday afternoons.

And as the students go about jostling for position in their little hierarchies, we the teachers and the staff were not oblivious either. While the age factor plays clear dominant factor for rank among students and the staff themselves, when the two groups mix together, a whole new set of reactive chemistry develops. As figures of authority and discipline enforcement, the staff do get some sort of respect and submissive hatred among the students, but unlike the staff in Seoul, who only see the kids in class, the staff (and the teachers) sort of also have to play the role of the loving parents and friends to the students.

And, as far as I can see with my limited Korean, the Korean staff has tried their best to stoop down to the kids' levels to make them feel comfortable living away from home for such a long time in the, well, middle of nowhere. The female staff, especially, has become a part of the female students, to the extent that some students have said that the staff "look like female students." As time goes on, the burden of domineering disciplinarian that come with staff's job description can only break down, no longer leaving the kids at the mercy of harsh commands.

Despite continued attempt to ostentatiously go through the same procedure everyday, whether it be doing SAT classes and activities or enforcing curfews and detentions from failing vocab tests, the extensive change in social relationships has changed the inner core of all such procedures. Fear for the authority figures no longer exists, replaced by shared subliminal derision of their superficially authoritative looks. Emotional backlashes from being pushed to study hard no longer exists, replaced by joys of so-called shared suffering.

Increasingly, everything has taken on a character of social experiment. One of my fellow teacher has taken on the mission of decoding the personalities of each student while remolding the social grouping to genuinely include every student. The bias of genuine romantic feelings (or just sexual lust, perhaps) has become a catalyst for remolding such groupings by introducing previously nonexistent awkwardness among different peoples as explosive reagents...and the need for individuals to belong has reshaped the characters (at least on the surface) of many people in our isolated group.

At the end, anyway one looks at the current situation, one thing is definitely for sure. The short six-week program will forever stamp a lasting social imprint on all the participants. Perhaps it is imprudent and hasty for me to judge after only a quarter of the way through, but I am in a way certain that the need to belong to a group, the failures at short-term romance, and how to keep calm and steady for the sake of the SAT classes despite all the background drama will remake everyone involved. Greater maturity? Perhaps. A lifetime of memories and social benefits? Definitely yes.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Balancing the Two Sides of Korea: Elitist Internationalization and Her Populist Sense of Traditional Self

Being an English teacher to an isolated group of English-speaking, foreign-raised Korean kids can easily deceive a person into believing the optimistic international nature of Korean society. While it is tempting to consider a country as mono-ethnic and mono-cultural as South Korea into a single block (or worse, as part of the greater Oriental "cultural group"), the fact is, with greater exposure of the country to the outside world, those who are directly experienced in associating with foreigners in general have developed a unique sense of identity away from the general population.

Admittedly, in terms of overall demographics of the country, the foreign-experienced ones has to be a tiny minority, often defined by high-end white collar jobs and privileged lifestyles. Unfortunately, for most foreigners living in Korea, these so-called "elitists," who are the only ones the foreigners really interact with, have inadvertently, in the eyes of the foreigners, the "typical" representatives of the "average" South Korean citizens. While most Koreans now have the resources to travel and even reside abroad, most of them still cannot fit the optimistic mold imagined by the socially simplistic foreigner...

For instance, over the weekend, I met a friend working as an English conversation teacher at a regular high school just north of Seoul. Having students who have no experience living abroad at all, he speaks of constant headaches about how to move his students beyond simply regurgitating textbook English phrases that have little practical usage. Despite intensive knowledge of English grammar and sentence structures, taught by Korean teachers to prep them for the likes of 수능 ("suneung," Korean college entrance exam or TOEIC, the standard English skills credentials used in Korea and Japan), the students cannot use the grammar properly when speaking.

While feeling lucky that I have no problems conversing in English to my students at the hagwon, I cannot help but feel the danger in the huge gap between the majority of Korean students and my foreign-educated group. I wonder, as my students finish their higher education in the US and return to Korea, how will they deal with their counterparts who went to Korean public schools from kindergarten all the way to college? The large gap in background will no doubt lead to huge gaps in ways of thinking and attitudes toward the world and Korea herself.

And unfortunately, the negative part of the attitude held by the Koreans who are not "internationalized" often shows itself in the most blatant ways at the most seemingly conventional times. Although foreigners in general are used to being stared at angrily when speaking foreign languages in public (true for Japan or Korea), the fact that people of the supposedly respected older generation occasionally tell the foreigners to shut up BECAUSE they are not speaking Korean still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the foreigners coming to Korea hoping to find "full embrace" of diversity.

And while hoping that the Korean students in regular schools without English abilities do not grow up to become outright haters of hearing foreign languages, I do see an inevitable schism of Korean society as more and more Korean students go abroad and more returns without being able to find jobs outside Korea. Attempting to bring back their foreign attitudes and lifestyles back to a still traditional Korea dominated by locals with only vague secondhand knowledge of foreign cultures, a violent clash of cultures can ensue even in the supposed safety of mono-ethnic atmosphere.

Staying at a traditional Korean style communal sauna house (찜질방, "jjim-jil-bang") surrounded by Koreans, after I drunk away the night at a somewhat Western style bar with two English speaking friends with other English speaking people nearby, I am starting to feel the omen of the "clash of cultures" in its full physical manifestation. The contrast of the two environments is a contrast of two cultures. The mellow lights, dart board, English pop music, and the Western food of the bar is a hangout for those professing to be the vanguard of Korea's globalization. They embrace wholeheartedly what is cool in the Western world.

In response, those who stay in the sauna house struggles to keep the tradition alive. Faced with a Western culture that values personal privacy over practically anything else, the traditionalists assert the continuing strength of a not-so-subtle "Asian value." It is truly my hope (and for the sake of Korea), that there can still be, way in the future, an overlap between the consumers at the Western-style bar and the Korean-style sauna house without forcing the destruction of one over the other...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Being the Old Guy among the Bunch...

"But, see, you are old and you don't understand what we are talking about..." the eager female student inadvertently blurts out as we hold up a random conversation during a short break from class. To be honest, over the last two weeks, I have been getting way too many of these sorts of comments that I should really feel absolutely indifferent to them...but unfortunately, even now, each time I hear them, I cannot help but twitch a little bit on the inside from the slight, painful emotional shock...

"You get older, but the kids stay the same age..." I always respond to people who ask me why I just do not be a full-time teacher in the lucrative private education industry. I am currently in it not primarily for the career, or the money (although that is also important for my next step at grad school), but because I can actually meet people (students and other staff members alike) and be friends with them. It becomes much harder as I age and the generation gap with the students gets bigger and bigger. The social consequence of aging becomes even more pronounced when we are all stuck here in the same building as is the case in Chuncheon.

Exaggerated perhaps, but certainly understandable for someone like me who has ALWAYS been one of the youngest ones in any of the social circles that I belonged to. Born literally at the end of the school year calendar on August 30, I grew up getting used to the facts that everyone to whom I was closest at school (and consequently, as new grads at work) would definitely be older than me by at least few days. And from that few days of "cushioning," certain level of social or emotional comfort was always generated and maintained.

Yes, I literally had the possibility to blame everything on my "youth." From the social gaffs to lack of "street smarts," my genuinely lack of exposure to some parts of the "outside world" were only slightly ridiculed because as the young guy in the group, I was supposed to not know. It made the others I know feel confident about their own abilities as the mature and knowledgeable "older big brother/sister" and more willing to associate with me, just so they can occasionally act condescendingly and flaunt their somehow more comprehensive understanding of the world.

I do not mind so much of the condescension from others, but I do mind having to play that role now as the "big older brother" to my students. As the perceived elitist Yale graduate, I am often considered to have a condescending attitude without doing anything at all. Those who I know (whether they be younger or older) often scoffs at whatever life knowledge I provide because they automatically assume that those knowledge are only suitable for those growing up inside the ivy towers and not for "commoners." My youth only serve to make my explanation less convincing and persuasive.

At least, in this respect, age is on my side now. Being the "experienced one" in life with a massive portfolio of studies, work, and travels, I suddenly went from being the immature young guy to someone whose rants on life receive (well, a sort of) respectful hearing. As a pointed out before, being an educator, especially in the hagwon environment, is really not about teaching whatever book knowledge but behaving as a sort of "role model" for the students to emulate.

Sure, as the "old guy," I am, sadly, no longer part of the same generation as the students I teach (unlike when I was only a year or two older than my students during my first teaching stint at Korea in 2008) and it is really getting much harder for me to connect with any of them outside the academic environment. But simultaneously, I know that, despite the shallow relations now as the teacher, there is the possibility of a longer, deeper relationship with myself considered more of a "mentor" who can more authoritatively answer all their questions as they grow up and walk down the same path as I did.

And lastly, just because I am getting older physically, does not mean I am growing just as old mentally. As I was drinking and awkwardly dancing away to the tunes of K-pop girl bands in an end-of-the-week karaoke session with the coworkers, I realized a part of me still is, and perhaps always will be, a big kid. That immature, yet entertaining (in a laughably stupid way) part of me must be maintained and occasionally used to balance out and neutralize the perceived intellectual condescension as an older Yale graduate....

Saturday, July 2, 2011

"실례지만...저...영어 못해요..."

...so the self-introduction of our male Korean staff went as we went for a handshake on the first day of my arrival in Chuncheon...fortunately or unfortunately, that phrase (meaning, "Sorry, but I don't speak English") has been the defining "tone" of our now 3-day-old SAT camp here in Chuncheon. Somehow feeling confident in my Korean ability more than in their own English abilities, the Korean staff has somehow now became completely alright with speaking in Korean to me 24-7, going so far as to admitting that they wish to learn to speak English...in Korean.

Ambiguous comprehensions and struggling in even the simplest conversations, as much as seemingly endless preparations for classes, has become the norm. Sandwiched by a Korean-Canadian colleague with fluent Korean and an African-American colleague who no one will expect to know any Korean, I am bearing the blunt of this inherent "only Korean spoken outside of class" policy. Perhaps I was wrong to tell anyone in the first place that I do not "some" (or even "a little") Korean so that they are somehow given a certain leverage to test out exactly how complicated of entirely Korean conversations they can carry with me and still somewhat and somehow getting the gist of the meaning across.

Do not get me wrong, I am not at all angry about the situation. In the relatively isolated university campus, and in our even more socially isolated camp within the campus, having such a "Korean only" policy may just be the thing I need to revive the Korean phrases I learned back when I was in Seoul for summer 2008 and when I took a year of introductory Korean for fun back when I was a senior at Yale. Forced to listen to Korean directly only at me and then respond correctly, I am feeling that what I am listening to has become more and more natural to the ears everyday.

But after all, being natural does not mean I do understand all of what I hear. As soon as the doors open and students come out of their classes, stern English lectures quickly turn to rowdy Korean chats among the students and the staff. Perfectly normal and natural in any hagwon here in Korea (including ours over in Seoul), this ordinary phenomenon has become quite bothersome and disturbing for me after a single weekend of having to see the kids all the time, walking around the same floors and eating in the same cafeteria.

And, at the end of it all, this is an English program, and I am an English teacher (whose job description does not require even the basic understanding of Korean language). For the staff (and the occasional students) to speak to us the foreign English teachers in Korean (in a highly matter-of-fact fashion) should at least raise a few eyebrows, if not direct criticism. Shouldn't the job description of the Korean staff, whose job is to assist the teachers, require some sort of ability to direct orally communicate with the English teachers?

For someone who recently has lived in only countries where I do speak the local language, I suppose I am finally feeling what it really means to be foreign. Even if there are efforts to mentally assimilate into the local culture, if the linguistic ability is not there for interaction, deep knowledge and adherence to the local culture means absolutely nothing. If anything, the desire for understanding only increases the expectation by the locals for you to put in the effort for understanding the language as well.

It only increases my respect for those foreigners going to strange corners of the world armed only with passion for understanding the locality through simple immersion. They are often received locally by organizations and people who openly and excitedly profess their passion for cultural diversification and mutual understanding. Yet, if they put in even 1% of the effort put in by the foreigners residing their localities, maybe the foreigners would not face so many bumps, misunderstandings, and social isolation that they almost always face.

Language barriers can be overcome if the effort is present (and I will certainly stand by these words myself). But if the effort is not there, all the talk of "overcoming" are just empty words and lip service. In a situation in which coercion to change is not only counterproductive but also completely unenforceable, I have grown to appreciate my own willingness to do some trail-and-error in a linguistic darkness...in light of others' efforts to force me to do so...