No turning back

This is a partial and rough account of beginning my volunteer work tutoring North Korean refugees while I was living in South Korea. Now that I have started a teacher-training course (CELTA), I have been thinking a lot about my first foray into teaching English and thought I would post this, despite it being incomplete.

Crowded room on the 3rd floor of a bank building in the shoddy office of an under-funded human right’s organization. We all sit and wait.

Slowly we introduced ourselves as teachers, what we wanted to teach, and when and where. The director of the volunteer organization was selective when it came to writing the information we shared on the board. It seemed his Korean counterpart was more thorough in her note taking as the board filled up with strange characters for the students to read.

When it came time for the students to introduce themselves, they were nervous. They spoke in broken English which sometimes blurred into Korean and we were supplied with a translation. They all pointed to the places from which they fled using a map on the wall. Most came from the northern most point, so close to Russia. I guess that’s where they first experienced freedom. And now they were here in Seoul. Most said they first arrived in 2009. Most were university students in their new home, which was both close but distant from their families (if they are still alive).

After the introductions were complete, it was time for the refugees to choose their tutors. I was the first person chosen, which left me feeling proud, disappointed, and afraid. Now I was committed to seeing this volunteer work through. I would have to travel to Seoul by myself, I would need to sit one-on-one with someone who barely spoke English. I would start to see if I was any good at this at all – despite the fact I’ve been teaching for over 20 years.

Then it was time to have a group photo taken. I felt odd about the whole thing. Is it normal to record the images of those who escaped from the neighboring land? Does North Korea continue to look for these people? Many of the refugees seemed hesitant to come to the front of the room, yet they all complied. We were all crammed together, forced to squeeze in tightly so we all fit into the frame, so that may have been the reason that the woman to the right of me dug her fingernails into my arm while she stood next to me. Or why my future student, standing on my left, grabbed the fabric of my sleeve and partially hid behind me. Or why two others made peace signs and held them up in front of their faces. Then again, maybe it was because they didn’t want to be seen but didn’t feel they had the right to say no to participating in the group photo — it’s not as though they grew up in a place where saying “no” was an option (at least politically). The director did say that no one had to be in the photo, but did they understand his English? Did they feel comfortable going against the request of authority?

The meeting was over and I left the crowded room with tutoring sessions slated for the next day and the one after that. No turning back now.

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