Friday, February 28, 2014

Volunteering with North Korean Defector Children

This photo is courtesy of the Facebook page of the Korean Red Cross Gyeongnam (대한적십자사 경남지사). It was uploaded today with a caption I've roughly translated as, "Today was the Mentor-Mentee Matching and Opening Ceremony for the KRC Gyeongnam's mentoring program with college students and defector children. After the matching, everyone went to the first floor baking kitchen to make muffins and have some great bonding time. We have a ton of enjoyable and edifying activities planned for the future. We are all rooting for you!"
As some of my readers may be aware, I recently traveled to North Korea (DPRK) on a tour with the Pyongyang Project. I have a lot to say about that trip, but because I'm still processing some thoughts (and because I haven't finished recapping Southeast Asia), I'll hold off on blogging about it for now.

However, I am remaining connected in a small sense to my experiences there by beginning a new volunteer activity this semester. Fulbright Korea sponsors many educational and cultural initiatives far beyond mere teaching, and one of its most successful programs has been the English tutoring program for North Korean defectors.

North Korean defectors are DPRK citizens who illegally leave the country to attempt to live and acquire citizenship somewhere else. If defectors successfully make it to South Korea (ROK) -- which is difficult and dangerous -- they can acquire South Korean citizenship and adjust to life here. But things don't get easier for North Koreans in the south. In addition to culture shock and the stress of daily life here, many find themselves at an economic disadvantage fueled in part by linguistic disparity.

North Koreans can face prejudice because they speak Korean a bit differently, but even worse, many defectors have had little to no English education, which bars them from applying to better-paying jobs and stymies economic mobility. As for children, many who have spent more of their lives living in China than in either of the Koreas, they must hit the ground running with their education and play catch-up for years before they can match their peers in linguistic ability.

One of the children I met today is a typical case: MS is fifteen years old but looks much younger than his age. He wasn't exactly shy, but he wasn't speaking much, either; the reason, I soon realized, was that he is more comfortable speaking Mandarin than Korean. He told me that he arrived in South Korea one year ago; prior to that, he spent eight years in China. As we chatted in Mandarin, South Korean volunteers looked on in interest, unable to understand. MS used Korean with his official mentors and the other children but Chinese with his younger sister and me. I taught him a handful of English words, but when I'd try to switch from speaking in Mandarin to English, he'd stop and say, "영어 어려워요." English is hard.

When MS enters high school in a year or two, he will be required to take intensive English grammar courses. Right now, he cannot even introduce himself. It is for people like MS that Fulbright organized its English teachers all across South Korea and began the English tutoring program. At the Hana Centers (where defectors go for resettlement and living assistance) in cities including Seoul, Daegu, Gwangju, Jeonju, Jeju, Busan, and Daejeon, Fulbright teachers conduct classes and/or one-on-one tutoring for defectors who want to improve their English. Changwon's Hana Center, which is operated by the Korean Red Cross, made plans to begin its English tutoring program this semester -- via me.

So that's how I found myself at the Gyeongnam Red Cross building, making chocolates and baking muffins with twenty adorable and high-energy kids and twice as many local college students, who were the defector childrens' official mentors for the year. The classes will begin in a week or two, but for today, I was just there to meet my future students and have some fun. And I did just that! I've never made chocolates before, and to do so with a bunch of kids with wild imaginations and a rather typical lack of self-control was the best way to learn how, I reckon.
Handcrafted chocolates courtesy the kids of the Gyeongnam Hana Center!
Some of the children were very reticent, but others opened up very easily. One bold girl who told me her name was Sandy and tried out her entire English vocabulary on my throughout the day was utterly incredulous when I told her that I was American. (Even some of the college students mistook me for another mentor who happened not to have a mentee.) But Sandy insisted that I was Korean and was just pretending not to speak Korean well because I was the English teacher. I don't know if I managed to convince her in the end, but the playful misunderstanding didn't keep us from having a great time when we played tag outside or packaged the colorful chocolates and freshly-baked muffins into bags to take home.

I had such a wonderful day today, and I can't wait to see Sandy, MS, and some of the other kids soon in my classroom. I'm nervous about teaching low-level students for the first time, but I'm committed to this and I know it'll all work out.


  1. This is awesome Andrew--would love to hear more as you continue your involvement.

    1. Thanks! I aim to write more as soon as the ball gets rolling this semester!

  2. C'est super ! J'ai hâte d'entendre des nouvelles de cette aventure !


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