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Establishing a Relationship

Park Ki-young (Teacher)

The place of my lodging is relatively large.  Aside from the proprietor, three other ladies help prepare the student’s meals. I did not notice at first, but after staying at the residence for about a month I noticed an interesting phenomenon. The students had a good rapport with the landlady? They exchanged greetings and even shared jokes, but this was not the case with the other three ladies. I hardly ever saw the students interacting with the other helpers. The three ladies talked amongst themselves in an aura of peace and harmony, but they avoided conversations with the actual students. It was not that the students were being raucous during mealtimes, or that the ladies were inhospitable.

It was because of awkwardness. The students perpetuated the sense of cultural difference as evidenced in the ladies’ Hamgyeongdo dialect (it is not certain whether they are actually from Yanbian or Hamgyeongdo), uncommon in South Korean society. I was not an exception. I too ate my meals in such awkwardness and I also intentionally avoided a few situations in which I could have interacted with the three ladies. As more time passed, what I had learned in school and the ‘Our People’ concept that I had taken for granted was starting to become clearer.

One day, while I was surfing the internet I coincidentally found out about ‘PSCORE’ and its extracurricular program for the NK refugees. Firstly, I was very intrigued that such a program even existed, and in a flurry of excitement with the expectation that this could relieve my worries, I immediately signed up to be a part of the program.

As a result, I was able to meet 000 on January 6, 2009. At first, the daily awkwardness I experienced at my residence overwhelmed me restlessly. I questioned whether I would be able to do well, I wondered if I would only do more harm than good. I wanted to seek counsel, but I had no one to ask.

I began my tutoring lessons filled with anxiety and worries, and it was a pleasant surprise to find it progressing favorably. 000’s energetic and earnest personality helped me put aside my fears. It has been over 2 months since I first met 000, and I have not once heard 000 complain even when the study material was difficult and I gave 000 too much homework. Despite 000’s diligent efforts, 000 maintained his/her humility. I found it very encouraging to watch her/him. As a result, I looked for more study materials and researched teaching materials more thoroughly.

It gave me great pleasure to know that my sub-par English skill was helping 000, but more than that, I was inspired as the fear and worries in my heart started breaking away. Sometimes during the lessons or during break time, we get a chance to talk about something else besides the study material.  Anything from a contemporary cultural issue to movies, travels, and career issues, the topic of conversation is varied. In one aspect, this could be considered just trivial chitchat, but to me it has been a way for us to understand each other’s cultural upbringings better.  I remember once when I was treated to dinner by 000 and 000’s sister. The meal prepared with sincerity was an absolute masterpiece.  The frank conversations that we shared during the course of dinner made the night all the more precious.

The most memorable topic of conversation had to do with the question: ‘How do South Koreans perceive North Korean refugees?’ At the time, I could not readily give a reply. Looking back, it seems obvious that I was unable to answer the question because I had never thought about this in the past. Since that night, watching “National Geographic’s: Inside North Korea” (2007), “Crossing” (2008), and other audiovisuals have left a deep imprint and raised many questions in my mind.

It is said that culture not only affects people materially, but also mentally and morally. As opposed to politics and the economy, which can more easily change according to laws and institutions, culture is something not susceptible to change. Despite half a century of divide on the peninsula, South and North Korean societies have shared a culture that lasted thousands of years. For this reason the South still considers the North Koreans fellow brothers, and this compatriotism is fundamental to those who argue for unification of the peninsula. However, since the division, the heterogeneity of North’s and South’s culture is becoming more serious. This means that the “culture” that once tied North and South Korea into one could become the biggest obstacle in the effort for reunification, analogous to the anecdote I shared in the beginning.

That being said, I believe that the extracurricular program for refugees that I am participating in provides an opportunity for us to understand each other’s cultures and thereby decrease the heterogeneous divide. Through this, I expect myself to become more mature. Perhaps I can even help ease the awkwardness embedded at my lodging. More so than anything, if my limited knowledge of English can help 000 adapt to South Korean’s society, there would be nothing else that will give me so much joy.

Translated by Sooyeon Kang / Edited by Christal S. Yim

2011 PSCORE. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.