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Before I left for South Korea, someone asked me why I would go on a DukeEngage trip there. South Korea is, after all, a developed nation with one of the highest incomes and qualities of life in the world. There are probably many other places that need the help more. Are we going to contribute anything meaningful or is this just going to be another dreaded case of “voluntourism”? These thoughts inundated my mind for much the weeks leading up to my departure and even my first week here. But after spending this week with the kids at the Jiguchon School, I’m beginning to develop a better appreciation of my role and the significance of our work here.

It helps to first understand some information about the school we’re teaching at. The Jiguchon School is a missionary school founded to provide education to the children of economic migrants living in South Korea. A lot of these students are from China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Japan. These kids come from socially and economically disadvantaged homes, and many students attend this school not only because of economic issues, but because they face discrimination and bullying from Korean students in public schools. This very real prejudice is in part the result of the historically homogeneous make-up of Korea. Knowing this, sometimes it can be easy to frame these kids within certain expectations. As it turns out, entering a completely new environment with completely with expectations proves just how wrong you can be sometimes.

This week we started teaching the sixth-grade class at Jiguchon and we had an absolute blast! Our first few English lessons we tried to emphasize the teaching aspect, but we gradually began incorporating more games and activities into our lesson plans as we realized the kids found these more engaging and stimulating. We quickly found out that there was no way we would be able to teach at the pace we had originally planned, but that was okay. We were there not there just to teach English, but also to show these kids the fun and enthusiasm that can come with learning and curiosity. Over the next couple of days, we not only taught but bonded with these kids. I enjoyed learning about where everyone was from and things they liked to do. I watched them dance to KPOP everyday and listened to their favorite songs (pretty solid music tastes in BlackPink, BTS, TWICE, Ed Sheeran, and The Chainsmokers). I admired how good at drawing some of them were and I enjoyed talking about sports and video games with them. One of them refers to me in a brotherly way “the cute teacher” after one of my embarrassing attempts at catching a ball. For our class project that week we made a music video featuring the kids to Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours.

By the time Friday arrived, everyone knew what was coming. We finally finished up our music video, but a general feeling of sadness seemed to fill the room that day. Many of the kids asked to take photos with us. I was very impressed by their photo filter game. During the last period of the day, we decided to go out with one last hurrah by taking a break from learning and taking the kids up to the indoor soccer field where we just played and hung out for the rest of the time. Though they presented their challenges at times, these kids have all captured a place in my heart and I will genuinely miss them.  Everyone in our DukeEngage group agreed that we had accomplished something meaningful in a short amount of time and we felt great going home that day.

During our weekend break we visited the Deoksugong Palace, which is where some of the last Korean royal families lived. I was amazed by the intricate art and architecture that adorned the palace grounds as well as learning about the symbolic meanings behind it. There were a lot of anti-President Moon protesters present there as well. We also visited the Bukchon Hanok Village, a traditional Korean village preserved to show a nearly 600-year-old urban environment. A lot of the tourists there were even dressed up in traditional Korean hanboks (clothing). I was a little saddened to see that a lot the traditional houses had been renovated and converted to stores and restaurants, but such is progress I guess. We also got to see parts of Myeong-dong, a popular and touristy shopping district. And yes, food in Korea is still very good.

This week was all about getting things Just Right. Next week we start teaching the third and fourth grade classes. Stay tuned!