The landing gear on the plane was lowering as we broke through the clouds and first saw the patterned fields below. Crisscrossed squares of green and brown were etched with tidy rows of rice and irrigation. I repeated to myself the sentences of greeting I had learned in Korean language class. For three months, I'd spent six hours every day studying the difficult combinations of sounds and rehearsing the honorific form of speech. All the classroom preparation would soon be put to the test.
Would I be able to converse with my students? Optimism and eagerness will always find a way, but language builds a bridge that hastens the journey. I wanted my middle-school students to know that I was genuinely interested in them, in their culture, and in what I could learn from being in their school. My heart pounded with anticipation.
The bus ride from Kimpo International Airport that crisp October day more than 30 years ago was like riding through a stage set for this fresh college graduate. l wrote in my journal: "On each side we saw things that were so 'authentic' - rice paddies, tiled-roof houses all built close together, open-front shops, dried fish hanging on rope, fruit vendors, grandfathers in their little black hats carrying canes, babies strapped on little girls' and mothers' backs, kimchi jars being filled with the winter's supply, children running everywhere by themselves, bicycling men, crowded streets, jagged mountaintops looming behind distant buildings, sweet faces, carts, construction work, dirt roads, curled-toe rubber shoes, and many, many people in traditional dress."
As we got deeper into Seoul, the traffic thickened, and the bus slowed enough for us to catch the eye of people on the street. Curiosity passed both ways through the open windows. No longer were we viewing scenes from picture books; we were in the midst of a city teeming with the pulse and smells of its everyday life. Women roasted chestnuts over small fires on the pavement. Men held out newspaper rolls of peanuts and dried squid, worked leather, and hawked vegetables. Small children wore only shirts, squatting close to their patient mothers who stared at the faces in the bus staring at them. We smiled; they did not.
When the door opened for us to get out, no one moved. We hesitated to step into this world so different from our own. We had been carefully prepared by the Peace Corps, but the getting ready was suddenly hard to connect with actually being there. Education officials and brightly dressed children greeted us with nervous enthusiasm, holding signs we could not read. With flowers pinned to our clothes, we shook hands and tried to speak their language, and they tried ours. It was an odd mix of stumbling and success.
The next day I was taken to my school, a boys' school north of Seoul, close to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. An American teacher was definitely a novelty, and the principal became an instant ally when he proclaimed in his limited English, "You look Elizabeth Taylor!" I soon realized that his not having seen many American women would have benefits for me: I was given a tattered desk close to the pot-bellied stove in the teachers' room and all the chalk I wanted - the luxuries of fame.
The following afternoon I was expected to make a speech in front of the entire school - in Korean. A teacher was assigned to help me with this daunting task, and I readily accepted her translating help as I wrote the angular, phonetic letters, with English sounds as backup. I practiced that night in the little room of the house where I lived. The family had a student in one of my classes, and they were proud to house the American teacher. No one spoke any English. Hushed voices and stocking feet shuffling on the papered floor in the adjacent room were barely audible; they let me fumble in peace.
The day of reckoning dawned windy and sunless. There was neither electricity nor heat in the school, nor a large enough room in which all the students could assemble at one time. The playground was used for anticommunist marching and drills, and on this day it was filled with the entire student body and teachers. The school band huddled together, playing brass instruments with freezing fingers and lips that stuck to the moist mouthpieces.
Numb with cold and fear, I followed the principal onto the platform to give my speech. I saw the rows of hundreds of boys in their faded, thin uniforms lined up before the speaker's stand. As if frozen in place, they waited silently. A long line of teachers stood attentively at the side. No one moved. Clouds seemed to be pressing down around the school with gray heaviness. Harsh wind chilled us, and I wanted to hug every shivering boy and tell him how valuable and important he was.
My self-conscious fear left with the late-autumn wind that day, heading for the graveyard of ego and self-importance. I spoke slowly and imperfectly, telling eager faces how I had prepared for this adventure and about my faraway home. The boys smiled and fidgeted as they heard my voice echo across the yard and bounce off buildings in odd-sounding Korean. I ended with an English sentence: "I hope that you students will learn English, and I hope I will learn much more about Korea."
Perhaps I was challenging myself. The balance of giving and receiving blesses both sides of a relationship. Over the months, my students tried hard to learn a strange alphabet and vocabulary, and I remembered how I had struggled with theirs. They had few books or pencils, but they had guts and joy. They showed me their spirit and toughness, and I learned from these young boys - 60 to a class - the importance of education and their need to press on in adversity.
Communication is caring. What we really learn is the language of the heart.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society