Lessons From A Few Years Spent in the World (1 of 5)

by Jake Hollingsworth // Seoul, South Korea // www.JakeHollingsworth.net

My wife and I have done a bit of traveling in the course of our stay in Asia. Korea. China. Japan. Taiwan. India. And in the duration of these little ‘East meets West’ adventures, I’ve noticed a common theme throughout. It follows us wherever we go. I can’t hide. I can’t run. I can’t lose it in a crowded market in Calcutta. No matter how hard I try, in this part of the world I will always be an outsider. I will always be different. I’m tall and lanky. I have red hair on my face. I don’t speak Korean, Chinese, Japanese, or Hindi. I fit very awkwardly into Seoul city buses.

The facts remain the facts: I’m not like the people I live among.

But one winter afternoon, as the sun was setting behind a strip of neon in downtown Beijing, I noticed something…

“The longer I sat, comfortable and content with a warm cup in my hand and forgetting the winter bitterness outside, I began to notice the baristas working behind the counter. They were busy, but not rushed. They pulled shots of espresso. Filled paper cups with Pike Place roast. Steamed milk in stainless steel pitchers. Warmed sandwiches, bagels, and muffins in a countertop convection oven. They called the names of drinks that were placed on the raised counter at the end of the barista bar. I began to predict what each employee would do next: replace empty syrup bottles; fill the mocha dispenser; retrieve cups from the back stockroom; greet the next customer with the obligatory ‘Welcome to Starbucks. Would you like to try a vanilla latte and a blueberry muffin?’ before they ever considered asking what the customer may actually want. This was a familiar scene. I could see myself making the Tall non-fat gingerbread latte that the young Chinese lady had just ordered. Or the doppio espresso for the casually dressed businessman with a German accent. Once a barista, always a barista. Six months earlier I could be found pulling those same shots; steaming that same milk; pumping that same vanilla syrup. The only difference was that I was not Chinese. I made coffee every morning for socially awkward Bob Jones University students, well-to-do young mothers in exercise clothes, and the usual assortment of entitled latte consumers. Or was there really any difference at all? This ambiguous and oversized coffee chain was a language. Like music. Or a smile. Or standing to offer your seat on a crowded bus. All individuals involved understand, and speak to one another without native and indecipherable words. I began wondering what would happen if I were able to step across the line drawn in the sand. Between the worker and the customer. The server and the one being served. Without a word, we could craft drinks together. We could create creamy foam atop lattes and cappuccinos. We could bump elbows but not get in each other’s way. I wonder what it would be like. We’re really not that different. Not at all.”

from 453 DAYS IN KOREA
by Jake Hollingsworth

When I stepped into my first classroom in Korea, the students were less than half my size. They could not understand me, and I could not understand them. We had a very fundamental disconnect when it came to relating and communicating with one another. As an ESL teacher, it comes with the territory. It’s what we sign up for.


In these past few years, I’ve learned a thing or two. My students want to be understood, just like me. My students want to be accepted, just like me. They don’t want to be alone. They don’t want to be rejected. They don’t want to be shunned by their peers. Just like me. When we are both sad, we want to be left alone. When we are happy, it shows on our faces. My students visit their grandmothers on special holidays. They count the days until summer vacation. They prefer pizza to broccoli. After all this time, I see myself in the little Korean boys and girls I teach every day. We’re really not so different after all.

As ESL teachers, it is part of our job to understand and embrace these similarities. By doing so, we open ourselves up to our students. And in time, they will do the same. If we don’t accept them, if we don’t bridge the cultural gap (both imaginary and real), then our students will never let us in. They will never trust us completely. They will never accept everything we try to teach them. They will harbor some degree of skepticism because we are different. Our task is not only to present them with grammar exercises and writing assignments, but to meet them on a personal level as fellow human beings. Once we understand one another, once we accept and encourage each other to be who we are, only then will we be allowed full access to our students.

The facts indeed remain the facts: we’re not so different after all.

What about you? How are you going out of your way to bridge real and perceived cultural gaps in your classroom?


About The Author


Jake Hollingsworth is a 2010 graduate of English For Life Academy. Find him at www.JakeHollingsworth.net