*Today, after having a successful free talk that turned into an unexpected discussion about body modifications, my student lingered at her desk.
I thought maybe she didn’t understand that class was over, and I was anxious to get back to editing my blog post before the next class came roaring in. I sat at my desk and opened my laptop while she took a long time putting her books in her bag. I didn’t want to start typing while she was still in the room, but I didn’t understand why she wasn’t running for the door as students usually do as soon as they are dismissed. She sat there and I looked up. She started talking (in Englishee!). I listened. She tells me about her summer vacation. It starts next week, it lasts about three weeks, and she has to attend private academies everyday of the week (excluding Sundays). There’s an academy for art, for science, for math, for social studies, etc.
She tells me her little brother is out of town and she feels lonely. She uses that word: lonely. Incredible accuracy for an ESL student of her level. And she laughs shyly when she says it- as if she hasn’t told anyone but has been wanting to. Her family is never home. She tells me about how she showers quickly, because she is afraid someone is sneaking up on her. She believes in ghosts even though she’s never seen one.
Earlier in the day, with my lower level student, he fills out a worksheet about aspirations. “Dreams,” they call them in Korea.
“What is your dream?” they are routinely asked.
“My dream is to doctor,” they all respond. Everyone here is well versed on that question more than any other. More than “How are you?” “What did you eat?” or “Have you had any suicidal thoughts today?”**
Anyways, for whatever reason, they’re all very well rehearsed on this question.
But not my student. Not this guy, who is the lone student in his class. Today he writes an honest answer. He writes, “I have no personal aspirations. I just want to study harder.”
And the dagger delves deep into my heart. How can this guy spend all day long working as hard as he does and not have something to look forward to, not have some sort of goal in mind? Some glimmer of hope…
It’s like working as a robot. Just working for the sake of working. Work. Work. Work.
But, I love when my students tell me about their lives, even if what they have to say isn’t so glamorous. It’s rare honest glimpses like these, when they put their guard down and actually try to communicate what they are thinking and feeling, that make me feel close with my students and to Korea. But they also remind me of my brothers back home and make me miss them. Like, a lot.
Miss their little baby feet, even though they aren’t so little anymore.
Miss their big eyes. Their boyish messy hair. Their random bouts of energy. Their voices. Their laughs. Their tiny man bodies in swim trunks, smothered in sun screen. Waiting, goggles in hand. Watching them play in the front yard from the kitchen window. The days they were born.
It’s odd that the same thing that would connect me to my life here in Korea also makes me miss home.
Living abroad is full of paradoxes like that.
It’s bittersweet that I don’t have more of these moments with more of my students.
Bitter, because I want these interactions. I want to love my students and to see them as people with stories and complexities and desires and conflicts and flaws.
Sweet, because if this happened on the regular, I might never leave Korea.
*I’ve given up my fight against the capital letter, as you will see in this post. Originally, I began my boycott because using capital letters felt like an unnecessary burden. But now, not using them has begun to feel like an unnecessary burden. This is because enforcing the proper rules of grammar at school at day and then coming home and forgetting about them became confusing, and I was missing edits on my students’ work. Anyways, it was fun while it lasted but the nonsense is over. For now.
**I say this because Korea has one of the largest suicide rates in the world. School aged children make up a significant portion of suicides, and could probably benefit from being asked this question by a school counselor or mentor every once and again, just to check in and see how they are doing. Of course, I imagine the wording of the question would (hopefully) be much more delicate, but they need someone to talk to.