I wrote in my previous post that I’m currently teaching Korean to a Danish girl. I greatly enjoy this for several reasons; it provides some structure, it holds me accountable, it’s a challenge, and she speaks Japanese so I can teach her while drawing parallels between Korean and Japanese, which may be one of my favorite things about language learning – making connections between words or across languages.
It is not, however, without a certain amount of bittersweetness that I’m taking on this task. I’m tutoring at the same premises where I met and studied with my best friend almost everyday while he studied in Denmark. Just being in the same room and doing what I used to do with him (although this time I’ve taken on his role as the teacher) is enough to trigger my grief. When I walked home after our first session I cried all the way.
I mentioned in a previous post that somehow, quite miraculously, a blog post written by my friend weeks before his death was published online in pretty much the very instant he left this world. The post was his account of our first meeting and how he taught me Korean. I haven’t linked to it here on the blog before because for a long time I didn’t feel ready to share it. I feel ready to do so now, so if you read Korean you can find his original blog entry here. If not, I have translated his beautiful tribute to the start of our amazing friendship, so his words may reach more people.
When I first read this post the day after his death, I felt 100% sure that he had somehow arranged for this to happen as a way of comforting me in my grief. I still consider these beautiful words a personal greeting from him and a reminder of our eternal friendship and affection. Just so you know, I’ve inserted a few comments in cursive here and there since he had a habit of exaggerating
a lot a bit once in a while. He always thought it much better to tell an interesting story than to stick to the truth and risk being boring 😉
How I became a Korean teacher in Denmark
(By Geonha Lee, originally published in Korean on November 5, 2018)
In remote Denmark far away in Northern Europe, I have had the experience of feeling people’s passion for Korea. More precisely, their passion for the Korean language. This is the story of how I became a Korean teacher in a Danish city called Aarhus. It begins with an email.
I had only been in Denmark less than a week when the international office at my school sent me an email “Dear Korean exchange students, do any of you want to try teaching Korean?”. I thought to myself “could I really teach Korean? And do Danes really want to learn? I wonder why…” After having thought about it for a few minutes I decided to go for it. Sure, let me give it a go! I thought it amazing that there were people here interested in Korean, and so far from home! I felt surprised and incredibly thankful at the same time. I sent a reply that I was up for the task and received instructions about meeting time and place. (Yeah, the email part is correct but any further correspondence was a Kakaotalk exchange between the two of us)
On the day of the first meeting I took extra care when picking out my outfit since I wanted to look stylish and made sure my hair looked cool before leaving my dorm. I thought that maybe these people would meet a Korean guy for the first time and I didn’t want to let down my country by giving them a reason to think critically of my appearance. I still remember this day vividly. (Haha, while he did look good, he wore a casual black t-shirt with blue jeans – how do I remember? He sent me a selfie in front of the meeting place to help me find him the first day 🙂
As I entered the building my heart was pounding. I made my way up the stairs and was met by those who wanted to learn Korean – 3 girls and one guy. (Unless the other three were invisible, it was only me, Geonha 😉 – but telling the story this way makes you sound cooler, so I’m gonna roll with it). They looked at me full of excitement and their eyes were shining brightly. In fact, I remember thinking to myself that this was the first time I actually saw anyone’s eyes sparkle.
At the first meeting, we briefly introduced ourselves and talked about their reasons for wanting to learn Korean. It seemed they had just been waiting for a Korean to arrive and teach them (I had indeed) and their passion was almost palpable. I felt my chest close to bursting with pride of being a Korean citizen. I wanted to match their passion and I wanted to do it right.
But with Korean being my mother tongue I had never really learned it myself, let alone tried teaching it to anyone. Nonetheless, the more I felt their passion for Korean the more I became passionate about teaching it and I became increasingly creative when planning my lesson material. (I was still the only student – but yep – he was very creative!)
From the beginning we set out to meet three times a week. After about a month, one of them (the only one, hihi) Sofie came to me and said she wanted to talk. For a second I was worried and thought nervously “She wants to quit? She doesn’t like the way I teach?”, before she continued, “They’re having a Korean speech contest in Copenhagen”.
Sofie was the most passionate of them all. She was also the most talented. (Aww thanks, haha). So she and I quickly became a team (yep, the dream team as we always referred to ourselves), and started preparing for the speech contest. We had one goal: Winning.
But… Preparing for this contest would turn out to be anything but easy. The problem: Sofie’s pronunciation. As a native speaker it was very difficult for me to explain how to correctly pronounce a word. Consequently I just made her repeat everything again and again until I was somewhat satisfied. (Oh yeah, I can still hear him say “dasi dasi” – again, again while shaking his head).
I was obsessed with the idea of Sofie winning the contest and determined to push her to the limits and make her sound like a native (100% true). Therefore, I would constantly point out even the slightest pronunciation mistake that she made so that she could sound like a true Korean. Sofie couldn’t really adjust to my teaching methods. She felt that her Korean was already decent and that I was being far too hard on her. I probably hurt her feelings a few times when pointing out her mistakes too harshly. (Well, that Friday afternoon where he pointed out that I couldn’t even pronounce my own name right, he sent me home crying. I practiced all weekend and earned his reluctant acknowledgment of having mastered the sound of ㅅ vs. ㅆ on Monday. I believed that’s where I started referring to him as the Tiger Teacher from Hell.)
Eventually Sofie understood that me being tough with her was just because I was so passionate on her behalf and so determined to become a good Korean teacher for her. After that, things started to run more smoothly. In the weeks leading up to the contest, we met every day. After countless rehearsals Sofie finally mastered her speech script and was ready for the contest.
On the day of the contest we took the train to Copenhagen. (Well, almost – I took the train and he flew in from Rome where he’d been on a short vacation. We did however take the train back together.) I could see that Sofie was nervous so I tried to make her relax by just talking about everyday matters. Finally, we arrived at the venue for the contest. My first thought was that it seemed much bigger than I had expected. There were also many participants, most of whom, were Korean majors at University of Copenhagen. I tried to play cool and pretend everything was fine but on the inside I was so nervous. “What if I haven’t taught her well enough and it’s a total failure…?”, I kept thinking to myself. Out of 12 participants, Sofie was number 11. Sofie did much better than I had hoped for, but to be honest, all the time she was speaking my heart was pounding. Under my breath I whispered to myself “She really worked hard. Even with my poor teaching skills and supervision she worked so hard…” Then a huge round of applause followed. Luckily, Sofie had won the contest. She thanked me and said she could never have done it without me and that it was truly a team effort. I was so touched by her words. I know I wasn’t the protagonist that day but I took as much pride in her first place as she did. It was indeed thanks to our teamwork.
After the contest we kept meeting and studying Korean until I had to go home. Even to this day, we still continue. Because of a foreigner’s passion for Korean I made some unforgettable memories. Without that I wouldn’t have been able to become a Korean teacher and create such a close relationship with a foreigner. For that I love my country and I’m extremely proud to be Korean.
I’m forever thankful to Haein, who first sent me the link to this blog post. 정말 감사합니다 ❤️