Barlow Alumni Travel Grant Report 2012

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Barlow Alumni Travel Grant Report 2012

Michael Cloutman ‘77


Korean Language and Cultural Immersion

Seoul, South Korea


I want to thank David Barlow ’79, the Barlow Family, and Bates College for the providing me with the opportunity to travel to Seoul, Korea, to further my nascent Korean language education. In addition to the Barlow Travel Grant, Kimball Union Academy generously provided funds for my professional development. The experience was truly the opportunity of a lifetime and one that I will never forget. What follows are some of the highlights of my trip and the impact of my experience.
As a faculty member for thirty years at Kimball Union Academy, a small independent boarding and day school in Meriden, NH, (now in its bicentennial year), I have taught many students from Korea. They are a vital part of the international student body at KUA, and over the years I’ve come to appreciate their culture and, more recently, their language. I began studying Korean language in part because I had a life-long nagging sense of guilt about my lack of foreign language skills. In addition, several of my Korean students urged me to consider learning Korean and to visit Korea where they could help me experience their culture. Many of these students are experienced international travelers who learned English at a young age, and many are fluent in more than two languages. I envy their language skills and admire the risks they took to leave their country and get an education in America. Several international graduates from Kimball Union go on to study at major colleges and universities in the United States, as well as in Korea.
After a year of studying Korean using various print and on-line resources, as well as a tutor and several willing and eager Korean students at Kimball Union, I realized that I needed more focused instruction and cultural immersion. Learning a foreign language is a challenge that requires more than part-time attention. The Barlow Travel Grant provided the necessary funding for just such an experience.
After researching several summer language immersion programs in Seoul, I settled on Yonsei University, a highly respected academic institution with undergraduate and graduate schools, a medical research hospital, as well as pharmacy, engineering, and life sciences schools housed in three campuses in Seoul. Moreover, Yonsei is justifiably proud of the summer language programs and year round classes at the Korean Language Institute (KLI) where I attended classes this summer.
When I arrived on the Yonsei campus for the first day, I settled into a seat in the auditorium, along with about 150 other students, to listen to the convocation speeches by the president of university, the director of the summer program, and a couple of other dignitaries, all of which were delivered entirely in Korean. Full immersion on day one; of course I could not fully understand all of what was said, though a few words were recognizable in passing. Following the convocation, I sat for a placement exam, and knowing full well that Level 1 was my destiny I dutifully responded to as many questions as I could just to see what I thought I knew of the language.
The following day I met my classmates as we waited for the 선생님 (seonsaengnim), the teacher, to arrive. There were 14 students in the class, many of whom where Korean-Americans who were interested in learning the language and learning about their heritage. In addition to several students from the US, there was one boy from France, a girl from Taiwan, and a Canadian boy of Korean descent. I was clearly the oldest student in the class, all of who were between 18 and 24 years old. I was probably the oldest student in the entire program, for that matter, though I did meet a few other adult language learners.
Classes ran four hours a day for five days a week from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm with two breaks between classes. The curriculum was tightly structured and students worked on all the essential elements of the language. On the first day we had a cursory review of the alphabet and phonetic sounds associated with vowels and consonants, and combinations thereof, after which we dove right into speaking phrases and learning sentences from the dialogues in the text. It was not uncommon for me to have two or more hours of homework to do, including memorizing or listening to dialogues, writing sentences based on the lessons during the day, or reviewing vocabulary in preparation for the daily quiz on the material.
Twice a week, Monday and Wednesday, I took a pottery class as part of the university’s Korean culture offerings. In addition to pottery, there were classes in Korean cooking, traditional Chinese brush painting, Taekwondo, and K-Pop music and dance. Afternoons in the pottery studio were a welcome respite from the language sessions. I could chat with my tablemates, roll out the clay, shape the material into the day’s assignment, and tap into what little artistic talent I had.
I lived off campus in the Sinchon section of Seoul, only a 15 minute walk to campus. The denizens of Sinchon are mostly college students who attend the three universities in the area, Yonsei, Ewha Woman’s University, and Sogang University. My neighborhood was filled with bars, pool halls, PC rooms (where people go to use computers, play games, and socialize), and karaoke rooms that attracted the college crowd. On most nights, especially weekends, the streets were bustling with shoppers and walkers, ducking into air-conditioned stores or restaurants for some relief from the stifling humidity. The subway station, a five minute walk from my room, provided access to all of metro Seoul. The fares are inexpensive, the trains are on time, and the stations rival hospitals for their cleanliness. Although Sinchon seemed a bit tired and tawdry compared to more upscale sections of Seoul, it had a unique character and quirky charm that I came to appreciate.
In my immediate surroundings there were several restaurants, including Starbucks (there were four stores on my walk to campus), McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, and an Outback Steakhouse all nearby. American food was ubiquitous, though I made every effort to avoid eating American food, with the exception of Starbucks coffee, my lone concession to American fare. However, finding Korean, Japanese, or Chinese food was never a problem; street vendors were on every corner and numerous restaurants offered traditional Korean food such as mandu (Korean dumpling), moolnaengmyun (buckwheat noodles and sweet potatoes in a chilled beef broth), bibimbap (a mixture of rice stirred with vegetables, beef, and egg mixed together with sauce and seasonings), and of course, kimchi, a side dish made of fermented cabbage, cucumber, radish, and seasoned with hot spices, pepper, garlic, green onion among others. Kimchi is considered the national food of Korea and it’s served in every home and restaurant in the country.
In my free time on some weeknights and weekends, I had the pleasure of visiting with several of my former Korean students. They were enthusiastic tour guides who were proud of their city and country. I have many to thank for their generosity and warmth, all of which made my stay in Korea that much more fun. I toured the ancient palace grounds of Gyeongbokgung, visited the Korean Folk Museum within the palace grounds, and learned about the rich culture and history of Korea dating back to the late 1300’s when the palace was built by King Taejo. Not far from the palace grounds there are small shopping districts that attract many tourists. Insa-dong is a favorite for tourists because of the many shops, cafés, tea rooms, restaurants, and art galleries. Not nearly as crowded as Insa-dong, and perhaps more quaint, are the narrow, winding roads and alleys of Bukchon-dong with its own unique range of restaurants, shops, tea rooms, cafés, galleries and bars.
One of the more interesting parts of Seoul is Gwanghwamun, an historical and cultural area that featured a wonderfully designed exhibition hall honoring the transformational significance of King Sejong who ruled Korea for over thirty years between 1418 and 1450. Widely acclaimed as the creator of the Korean alphabet (Hangeul), King Sejong’s unique writing system was designed to make learning as easy as possible, and increase literacy throughout Korea. Outside on a plaza stands a giant statue of King Sejong on a throne overlooking his subjects. Beneath the statue, a series of water spouts erupt while children frolic in water to find some relief from the summer humidity.
Although I was not able to travel outside of the Seoul metro area and visit other cities or see the sights in the rural areas, my hope is that I’ll be able to do so on a return trip to Korea in the future.
Perhaps the highlight of my Korean cultural experience was attending a professional baseball game at the stadium near the Olympic Park. Although the game of baseball is played exactly like American baseball, the fan participation is worth the price of admission, which in this case was 10,000 Korean Won, or roughly $9.00 for excellent seats in the grandstands on the first base line. Korean fans are passionate about their teams, and fans from both teams pour into the stadium clad in their teams’ colors, carrying inflated “clappers” that with each cheer resonate like drumbeats throughout the game. Each fan base has orchestrated cheering sections, and virtually every fan knows the various cheers for particular players and the words for every song that’s boomed out on the PA system. Both teams had a cheerleader who stood on a stage surrounded by a sound system and four girls dressed not unlike cheerleaders for college or NFL games. The atmosphere of the game and the passion of the fans was contagious. I was also impressed with how polite and respectful the fans were; there was no foul language or jeers aimed at the umpires or opposing players, and at times it was more like being at an opera instead of a baseball game.
Quite aside from all of the time spent touring parts of Seoul and reconnecting with Kimball Union’s Korean alumni, my experience in Korea was transformational. I came to appreciate the Korean culture and rich history far more than I could have by reading books or learning the language in isolation. Personally, the challenge for me was to learn the Korean language in greater depth and understanding than I could on my own, to experience a different part of the world, and to dwell outside my comfort zone. To these ends, I succeeded. Professionally, I gained greater insight into and respect for the Korean culture and customs. Sitting in a classroom and being barraged at times with an onslaught of strange sounding words is daunting. I certainly have greater empathy for my Korean students who, though reasonably proficient with English, still are challenged by the syntax and diction of the English language, just as I was and continue to be challenged by the Korean language. Though I am far from fluent, I continue to work at learning more and I’m inching my way toward greater proficiency. I am able to exchange some words and phrases with my Korean students, meet and greet some of the prospective Korean students and parents who visit campus with their children, all of whom appreciate the effort to understand a little bit of their culture.
I am truly grateful for the generous opportunity provided by the Barlow Alumni Travel Grant, and I am honored to have been the recipient of such a prestigious award. My experience in Korea has changed my perspective on my career as an educator, and has whetted my appetite for more educational opportunities and travel abroad.

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