My good friend and colleague, Monica Schnee, is currently in Seoul, Korea, as a
Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Recipient. Monica is a K–5 ESL teacher from River Edge, New Jersey. She is currently on leave from this position to spend a semester in Korea. I am pleased to share Monica’s blog with you.
I arrived in Seoul on 1 September, to do research on how the English language is taught at schools and schools of education. I was thrilled to win a Fulbright Scholarship to explore firsthand this extraordinary country that I knew secondhand through all the Korean students and families I work with in a public school in New Jersey. My research for the application had already given me a peek into the history and culture of this ancient nation that is, at the same time, a new democracy.
Through my work, I already knew some very basic Korean, one word and short phrases, like typical newly arrived ESL students or in this case, KSL. Just like many of my students, I was also able to decode but not really read to comprehend. I fool the people around me with my decent accent into believing I speak Korean but in two seconds, I am filled with frustration and a wish to communicate. This experience alone is worth the journey—getting into the shoes of an English language learner!
The Hangeul Alphabet
Being here has given me the chance to immerse myself in their past and present and to get a glimpse of their future. It is a unique opportunity to experience a world so different from mine, beginning with their alphabet and language.
The Hangeul alphabet is an amazing system, a linguistic marvel. Koreans are very proud of it and have built a most impressive and comprehensive museum to keep this intangible national heritage alive. Hangeul is such a fundamental part of their existence that there is even a Hangeul National Day to celebrate the fact that there is an alphabet that is unique only to this nation.
Learning About Korean Food
Learning about a culture is also learning about its food. I have been eating and cooking Korean food as part of my cross-cultural relationship with my students. Once here, the whole experience changed because here is where the culture comes alive. Koreans are passionate about their food at all times of day and night. I have tasted all kinds of delicacies that have given me another perspective on the importance of landscape and seascape. Seafood is what Koreans thrive on—fish, all kinds of fish, shellfish, and creatures from the bottom of the sea not existent in any Western cuisine.
Kimchi, the Korean national dish, and an intangible national heritage, exemplifies their collectivistic way of living.The tradition of kimjang, making and sharing kimchi, is a practice still followed in small towns in the fall. Its relevance is materialized in a museum describing and teaching the process of how to make kimchi. There are kimchi festivals, where people learn to make and taste different kinds of fermented and preserved vegetables. Kimchi jars, beautiful functional vessels of different sizes, pepper the landscape, on the rooftops of tall buildings, low houses, on the side of people’s homes, a ubiquitous and essential in Korea’s way of life.
An Historic Time in Two Countries
I have been privileged to be here during historical times for both countries. On election evening in the United States, the next morning in Korea, I was invited to the Election Watch held by the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Koreans and Americans shared a feeling of anticipation and apprehension. Koreans have an intimate and intricate relationship with the United States. So much of their economic and social life is based on their alliance and their safety depends on who the leader of our nation is and how he will deal with their neighbor and estranged brother, North Korea. The results were devastating for most attendees, and it spilled over to the people in the streets. One taxi driver I met was fearful and stunned, students that I spoke with during my school visits were shocked – the first thing that came out of their mouths was “Trump, aniyo” (Trump, no). Just like us, Koreans are hoping that the next four years in US government are kind and generous.
I have witnessed Korean democracy in the weekly demonstrations against their president, accused of corruption. The protests, peaceful yet loud and strong, show the discontent of the nation and the unity to move the country forward. It has been a fascinating and inspirational journey to learn about this ancient nation filled with contradictions, determination, and exceptional strength.
The people of this nation have welcomed me, always generous, receptive, and willing to help. Our mutual curiosity has resulted in long and insightful conversations about our two countries, our systems of education, and our cultures. South Korea and Fulbright have given me the chance to learn about different ways of thinking and living that have broadened my understanding of humanity. I am forever grateful.
You can read my Fulbright blog at bridging perspectives.
Monica Schnee is an educator, former educational senior editor, and journalist. She teaches ESL at River Edge Schools in New Jersey and assessment at a graduate school. She is also a mentor, coach, and a WIDA certified trainer. She has written curriculum for the NJDOE and is a former member of the executive board of NJTESOL/NJBE. Monica was born in Argentina, lived in England, and then moved to the United States. She is an advocate for immigrant families and the importance of bilingualism.