reliving korea: dinner & noraebang with my former esl students

Monday, August 20:  Tonight I meet some of my former ESL students from Northern Virginia Community College for dinner at the Korean restaurant Choong Hwa Woon in Annandale, not far from the college campus.  It was cute how one of the students, a boy from Hong Kong named Sze, remembered that I was going to be at home during August.  He contacted me on Facebook on July 31: “hi are u back on August?”  We talked about dates and then Sze turned the planning over to my top Korean student Song, who would be in contact with the Korean contingent.

Fun times with my ESL class from last summer!

I leave my house 45 minutes early because last year, when we met at this same restaurant for dinner, storms and flooding caused me to be 45 minutes late.   About halfway through my drive, I realize that I have forgotten my camera!! I’m so upset but I know that if I return home to get it, I will be really late again!! So I continue on, hoping that one of the students will have a camera with them.  It turns out Grace takes a couple of pictures with her iPhone, so the top two pictures are taken with her phone. 🙂

It turns out that 7 of my 13 students show up for dinner.  We have a great time catching up with each other.  Most of them have now finished with the ACLI (American Culture and Language Institute) at NOVA, and are taking their general education classes.  They are all ambitious students and plan to major in various subjects such as business, interior design, computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and even hospitality.  Grace, my top female student in the class, wants to go to the University of Virginia eventually.  Song is thinking about Cornell or Virginia Tech.

Sze, Chang-won, Jeahoon, Min, Grace, me, Song, Ryan

They ask me about teaching in Oman and I tell them my students are mostly female.  I say there is a big difference in culture:  Koreans have a strong work ethic but are not generally confident about speaking.  Omanis are very comfortable speaking, but need to develop a stronger work ethic and improve their grammar and writing.   Teaching each culture has its challenges and rewards; they are very different.

As far as speaking, most of the students at our gathering are confident speakers in my presence; a couple are a little more reticent.  I ask them about their current classes, where the class composition leans more toward Americans.  Jeahoon says the classes are difficult and “we never say anything.” They’re hesitant to speak in a class full of native English speakers.  Possibly they feel they will make mistakes and embarrass themselves.  They may not feel confident in their abilities.

I often wonder what made our particular class so cohesive and comfortable. We developed an easy camaraderie very quickly.  One factor was certainly the class size.  With a small class of 13 students, it made it easy to allow everyone a chance to speak. And it was a Speaking & Listening class, where speaking was a huge part of the class grade.  Also, they were in a class full mostly of other Asians, especially other Koreans.  The fact that I had just come from a year teaching in Korea, and had traveled during the year to Vietnam and China, helped us to develop a connection.  The only person whose country I hadn’t visited was that of an African girl, Astra.  I understood their culture and I also understood what it is like to live as an ex-pat in a foreign country.  I could identify with them and they with me.

our class in summer of 2011 on the Northern Virginia Community College campus

Of course I like to think I am a good teacher.  I know I do have positive qualities as a teacher.  I am kind and encouraging, but also demanding.  I have high expectations of my students and can be tough when necessary.  I’m also not afraid to share myself with them, to be open and vulnerable, and to make fun of myself.  I think this encourages my students to do the same.  As we talked about every controversial topic known to man, they felt safe.  I like to think I gave them a voice here in America.

After dinner, Song suggests we go to Honey Pig Izakaya for karaoke (what is called noraebang in Korea).   You can rent rooms here for $40 (!) an hour (In Korea it was about $7).  There is a table with a U-shape arrangement of bench chairs around it facing a big flat screen TV.  We sit down and peruse a song title book as thick as a block of concrete.  I pick out a song I want to sing and enter in a number: “California Dreamin'” by the Mamas and Papas.  I tell these students that I taught all my Korean elementary students this song when we learned about weather words.  The song comes up on the screen with the words highlighted as they occur in the song.  In a Korean karaoke room such as this, the music videos that accompany the songs all have Korean characters and are usually dreamy productions.

I’m never shy in these situations and even though I can’t sing at all, I belt out “California Dreamin’,” just like I did in Korea in front of my elementary school students.  We take turns singing.  Song is a great singer, as is Grace.  Chang-won even sings a song.  Fun times all around! 🙂

At one point Grace puts up the song “Hero” by Mariah Carey.  She says, “This song is for you, Cathy.” That makes me want to cry!  She sings it and I sing along, trying not analyze too much how the words might relate to me. I’m so happy that they think of me as a positive influence in their lives, for whatever reason.

There’s a hero
If you look inside your heart
You don’t have to be afraid
Of what you are

There’s an answer
If you reach into your soul
And the sorrow that you know
Will melt away

And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive

So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you

Sadly, at $40 an hour, we only stay for an hour.  We part ways and I feel sad because I’m not sure if we will meet again.  If I return to NOVA in the fall of 2013, possibly some of them will still be at NOVA.  But some will have moved on to university.  Of course, I wish them all success in achieving their dreams.  And I will always carry them with me in my heart.

To see more about this amazing class of students, please visit: my first and most amazing college-level ESL class.

If you’d like to read about my experience in Korea with noraebangs and other “bangs,” please visit: south korea… land of the “bangs”