“Oh… Jeremy, today you have a class with some parents,” my CoTeacher told me, almost one year ago. “Really?!? What am I supposed to teach them?” I responded. “I don’t know, just talk with them.” And so it began. Every Wednesday for this past year, I would meet two of my students’ Mothers for a little English class. One of them spoke pretty well and the other could hardly understand a word I was saying. And yet, every week she kept showing up to class with this look of fear, nervousness, and distain in her eyes. “I kentuh speak Engrishi,” were the first words I ever heard her say and she said them with such low self confidence it hurt me to see it.
Quickly I realized that I wasn’t going to be teaching appositives or prepositional phrases and decided that instead of teaching them, I was just going to help them learn. Since I was learning their language also, it made it a lot easier. I used pictures to show them that if they just continue to study a little everyday, over time, they would improve. We laughed a lot – at awkward moments and silly situations – and each week they became more and more comfortable with me. As my Korean caught up to their English level, we began to have mixed conversations about life, Korean culture, their children, and traveling the world. We shared experiences of frustration with learning language and laughed together. Whenever I was sick at home, I would receive a half English half Korean text message telling me to feel better and to cheer up. Our classes really became a highlight of our week, and I found out yesterday exactly why.
HeeJung is a 45 year old mother of two high school students, her husband is an English teacher at a prestigious high school in Seoul, and she hasn’t driven a car a day in her life. Her laugh is utterly contagious and she really shines in a group setting, that is, when she’s the one talking. Last night, her and the other two mothers from this semester took me out to a nice steak restaurant near my house to say their goodbyes. At the end of the dinner, HeeJung turned to me and mustered the courage to tell me something in Konglish (I’ve translated): One morning a few months ago, I woke up and thought something strange. I thought to myself, ‘Is Jeremy really my friend?’ At first I had many prejudices about him. He is younger than me, a man, a foreigner and my teacher. In Korea, woman are not supposed to be friends with men. In Korea, we are only friends with people of the same age. I have always been afraid of foreigners and I was always taught that my teachers were above me and cannot be friends. But that day I realized that I really do consider you a friend. Thank you for that. Thank you for always encouraging me. Now I feel like I am much more confident. Have a wonderful last month in Korea and I miss you already.
THE TAKEAWAY: After pushing my tears of joy away, we took pictures together and made our way to the door. It was the strangest feeling – so bittersweet. But as I left them I realized what this experience has taught me about life – open yourself and others will open to you. From day one I was doing my best to learn their language, and I was always positive, and encouraged them as best I could. HeeJung had especially low confidence, believing herself to be “only a housewife.” Everyday I reminded her of why she was learning English and that it can be easy and fun if she learns to see it that way. The walls that she had to knock down to let me in are enormous here in Korea. Many of those things she said simply aren’t done. But this all just goes to show that rules are made to be broken, and minds are meant to be open. So please, let’s open ourselves up to the world and maybe… just maybe… the world will open itself to us.