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Before we started teaching at Wooridul, I told myself that leaving this school would not be as hard as leaving Jiguchon because these were (a lot) older and better educated students. I expected our temporary service there would not carry the same significance or emotional weight it did with the Jiguchon students. After all, the Wooridul students are well behaved, they follow along and participate in all our class lessons, and they seem pretty diligent and hard-working in their studies. We like to joke and have fun with our students a lot, but at the end of the day, we taught what we wanted to teach, and they always thanked us for it. This image made me believe that these students were well adjusted to South Korean society and for the most part, were well set up for success in life. Therefore, my presence there meant little and would just become a fleeting distant memory to them when I finally depart.

But then they said something that changed my outlook on things. Many of these students don’t get a lot of exposure to new people and faces. The students all seem pretty friendly with the teachers and each other, but I’ve often wondered what their interactions are like outside of Wooridul. One of my students said he almost exclusively hangs out with other Wooridul students because he doesn’t know anyone else. All of my students in my reading club can only speak Chinese and only have a basic grasp of Korean. As someone who has struggled for almost two months trying to get around Korea while not knowing any Korean, I sympathize with how difficult it is to interact and socialize with other people without knowing the subtleties and meanings of the majority language. On top of that, South Korean society is still not completely welcoming to North Koreans as there is still quite a degree of discrimination and misunderstanding that occurs between the two. Although I have never dared ask my students, I would like to hope and believe that it is not something they have had to experience.

I don’t know how much teaching I’m actually doing at Wooridul, but I do know that I can be a friend and a new face. The thing I value most of my time at this school are the conversations. There are often occasions in reading club where we just stop what we’re reading to talk casually about different topics from American college culture to video games to fashion. We bond over our mutual love/hate for spicy Sichuan food and share music interests.  One of the more memorable lessons this week was when we created a dialogue for the students set at a karaoke bar and the ending was each person had to sing parts of their favorite song. I was blown away by the talent of our students as one by one they sung their hearts out to different Chinese and Korean songs. It was quite a time! While I had originally thought our teaching at Wooridul would be much more serious due to the students’ ages, we have discovered they respond just as well to learning through fun activities. Next week is our last at WooriduI and while I don’t yet know what it will have in store, I’m sure it will be just as great as last week.

One other note. As part of our DukeEngage program, we were given a side field project to do while in South Korea. My group (Youlim, Melody, Valentina, me) were tasked with researching multiculturalism in Korea, so we decided to examine that topic through the lens of international food and the immigrants behind them. For our part, Youlim and I took a day trip to Itaewon, a bustling hub of internationality as one of the most diverse area of Seoul due to its long history and proximity to the American military base, to seek stories and food that contribute to the face of multiculturalism in Korea. While we originally thought that this would be a simple task, we quickly realized that it was difficult finding an “international food” restaurant that was actually run by immigrants and even more difficult to find someone willing to open up to us about their experiences. I don’t blame them. If I were them, I wouldn’t want to talk to some random kids who showed up out of nowhere asking about sensitive and personal experiences either. While it was frustrating to have been shut down by multiple people that day, our persistence paid off and we finally succeeded in speaking to people at a Ugandan, South African, and Turkish restaurant. The food was pretty delicious too. More to come on this project.

Stay tuned next week!