Saturday, February 20, 2010
Young Sik (영식)
3 weeks ago, I got my first taste of teaching in Korea. In fact, I got my first taste of teaching adults as well. I have to say, I think I’m getting a bit spoiled.
Initially I thought that my inability to speak more than 3 words in Korean would get in the way. It does a little but, not nearly as much as I had expected.
The first group of students were from a local University called Kangwon. Now in Korean society, where you go to college is almost more important than if you go to college at all. I don’t know exactly where Kangwon sits on the scale but it’s not at the top and not at the bottom. Regardless, the students were quite a bit lower level than we expected on average. We had maybe a handful of students out of the 27 that were at a conversational level and 2 that were pushing fluent. The rest fell somewhere in the low intermediate category with a few on either end. We weren’t exactly prepared for what we had in front of us. We had text books that are mediocre at best and a rough idea of what they would be learning in the course of the next 2 weeks.
So for 2 weeks, our Kangwon kids worked day and night, improving their English little by little. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you work or how long, it’s nearly impossible to see a significant change in your foreign language usage. It’s there for sure, but it’s incredibly hard to see, especially if you come in expecting certain results. We did our best to explain early on that our goal was not to make them into perfect English speakers but to help them take larger strides where they normally take baby steps. I think they got the message.
In such a short time, I have found that the real contribution we English teachers can really make is boosting that confidence. It’s a very tricky business but if you can pull it off, huge walls come tumbling down and the English just starts flowing out of them. I’d say 3 of our students got to that point by the end of the 2 weeks. It was all we could do to get them to take a break from speaking English. That’s an incredibly rewarding thing for an English teacher to have to do, and yes, I think it’s very necessary to stop them. You use another language for too long without a break here and there and it’s like a 3 year old on a sugar high; at some point they crash and lord knows when they’ll wake back up.
So after two weeks of working their butts off, I got a very special thank you that I will never forget. In Korea, given names don’t mean much. Often they are very traditional and are usually passed down through the family but nick names are something different. Most of the younger generation go by their nick names and more often than not, it’s one that is given to them somewhere between high school and college. My advanced class students asked me if I had a Korean name yet. When I told them no, they said I should choose one. When I told them I thought Koreans gave each other nicknames, they said they would give me one the next day but they needed time to discuss it. That alone said to me that this was something worth remembering. The next morning after my final lesson, the 2 highest level students said that they had agreed on a name for me but that it was kind of funny and they weren’t sure I would like it. The name they gave me was (영식) Young Sik (pronounced like sheek). They said the first part of the name was the Korean version of the word young, just like in English because I look very young and for Koreans, I am young. Most teachers are at least in their 30’s. The second part was the one they weren’t sure I would like. Sik is a very traditional name in Korea and is fairly common. Generally, it’s a name that old men have in Korea. The thing is, they said that Sik means something like one who is very wise and respected. I can’t tell you how good that felt to know that my students thought of me as wise and respected. It is truly something that I will always remember.
After having thought about that day for a while, I’ve decided a few things about names. What I call myself has very little meaning in my life. Often, when I feel depressed or when I’m just having a really crappy day, I call myself some pretty unkind names. The thing is, they really don’t hold any meaning for who I really am. But the names that other people call you can have huge and lasting impacts. Young Sik is something I will take back with me that is far more valuable than any souvenir or any photos. It’s more than just a name to me. It represents who it is I am here and for as long as we are in Korea, Young Sik is the man that I will strive to be for all of my students.