Friday, April 27, 2012

Doing a Good Turn

North Korea flag DPRKI've mentioned before that I tutor North Korean defectors. I've been doing it for a few months now. The whole time I debated whether or not I should mention it here, but I figured there's nothing wrong with encouraging people to do a good thing.

Classes with the North Koreans aren't much different than with my kids, except their English is much more basic and they're much older. They're all rather good-natured and (as far as I can tell) happy to see me. I teach a basic class that has a core enrollment of three students, with two others who drift in and out as it suits them.

The three core students are two men (I'll call them Yunu and Guncheol) and one woman (I'll call her Soon-mi). Pseudonyms are because I'm not sure what their story is so far and I'd rather not inadvertently put them or their families in danger.

Out of all the students, Yunu is the moodiest. He gets frustrated easily, though out of all of them he probably has the highest level. He and Guncheol seem to be good friends, the kind that joke around and give each other shit.  At least, that's what it looks and sounds like, considering my Korean is not much better than their English. They might be actually fighting for all I can tell.

Unlike Yunu, Guncheol is almost always in a good mood. If he makes a mistake or doesn't understand something, he takes it in stride and laughs it off. He also applies himself more than Yunu; even if Yunu's current speaking and listening level might be higher than Guncheol's, Guncheol already understands phonics (yes, we are starting at phonics, that's how basic this is) better than Yunu.

Soon-mi is itty-bitty. I'm sure she's around my age—at most maybe a year or two younger. Yet she stands a full head shorter than me.

In case any of you forgot (or didn't know), I'm damn short. 5'1". Usually I stop towering over people by the time they hit the double digits. I actually have to be mindful of where I write on the board because Soon-mi might not be able to reach it at all. Photos of starving children in Africa are horrible and touching, yes, but something about a grown woman barely coming up to my shoulders is way more personal.

And while Soon-mi is an extreme (the other girls are taller than her), it's still not surprising. The typical North Korean is about six inches shorter than the typical South Korean. (As far as I can tell, Yunu and Guncheol seem average to me, but I am rotten at judging people's relative heights.)

Soon-mi is a sweetheart, though. Her disposition is as sunny as Guncheol's, and the both of them are the hardest workers in the class. The boys joke around with her much like they do with each other, though to a lesser extent.

The classes start at 10:10 in the morning, and while it means I have to get up and out of the house way earlier than normal, I love it. I think it's something every teacher should do, at least a few times. Most of the time, we English teachers have a good life here in the ROK and it treats us pretty well. It's only fair to give something back above and beyond what our jobs call for.

If you're interested in tutoring North Korean defectors, there's a few resources out there:

1. Ask a Korean! has some private connections and will always field inquiries from volunteers to match them with a school. There are also links in the comments.

2. Hana Center, which is affiliated with the official relocation centers for defectors, also accepts volunteers. I'm personally acquainted with Jordan Groh, who works with one of the four centers in Seoul. You can email him (username jordan.groh at the famous Google mail server) for more information.

3. Up here in Uijeongbu, Danny Chung is the guy to get in touch with. If you want to email him, he's neukorea.

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