Sunday, June 04, 2006
A Dose of Childlike Joy
On a particular February morning, I was preparing to teach my religion class at the institute in the city of Suncheon, located on Korea’s southern coast. I would be using one of the lessons that SDALI provided, one which compared the adulterous woman Jesus forgave in John 8 to characters found in the Julia Roberts movie “Pretty Woman.” In religion class, one of the duties of the foreign teachers is to explain large words that the students might not understand.
On this particular day, one of the words was “prostitution.” With words such as these (another example would be “circumcision”) I often find it easier to tell the students the Korean translation, rather than finesse my way through explicit English definitions while my face gradually grows more luminous.
“Ashlee,” I asked one of the Korean junior teachers, “can you look in your electronic dictionary and look up this word?”
Ashlee’s sweet yet inquisitive face tilted down toward her small silver source of knowledge as she punched in the English letters she was offering in exchange for Korean characters. I knew she’d found the answer by the look on her face.
It was the look similar to that of a 6-year-old hearing where babies come from for the first time: amazement mixed with a liberal dose of horror. She eventually told me the Korean word, but at first she could only mutter “They sell their bodies…?”
Ashlee, whose real name is Kim Yu Seon, had joined the institute staff only four months earlier. At 24, she was two years younger than I am, speaks English competently enough to teach it to children at the Suncheon institute and Japanese fluently enough to instruct adults. Though she possesses more linguistic ability than I could ever claim, this example shows that her knowledge in other areas of life has greater room to grow.
SDALI has a great opportunity to reach people such as these.
Koreans are very driven people. Pictures brought home by American GIs at the end of the Korean War testify to what the nation had to work with following the conflict between the communist north and American-backed south. South Korea’s capital, Seoul, lay in ruins and more than a million lives, both civilian and military, had been claimed. In the years that followed, the country’s stock has risen dramatically, to the point where it is currently the 10th largest economy in the world.
The country that Ashlee was born into in the early 1980s had both prospered and suffered under the two-decade administration of economics-minded dictator Park Chung-hee, who had nourished financial growth while stifling freedom of dissent and fixing elections to keep himself in power. By the 1990s, Korea had begun holding free elections and had become one of the world’s most economically viable nations, but its past hardships had left their mark on its people’s mindsets: to them, all things are possible through hard work, especially hard work in school.
Today, in addition to their native tongue, Korean students are expected to study English, as well as another foreign language of their choosing by the time they complete university study. The benefits of this mentality are many: literacy is nearly 100 percent, and English-speaking foreigners such as myself can travel easily in the country because most signs and subway maps are bilingual.
However, there are also drawbacks: Korean parents spend literally billions of dollars each year on after-school tutoring, and sometimes students and businessmen respond to the pressure with suicide. The determination to keep up with the neighbors motivates Korean students but places an enormous burden upon their shoulders.
But this focus on education creates a ripe mission field for SDALI. Teachers from English-speaking countries all over the world come to one of the 37 SDA institutes all over Korea for the purpose of offering them the English, Japanese or Chinese classes they desire. At the same time, we hope to show them that the classroom cannot teach them everything they should know about life.
My first two-month term in Suncheon took place in September-October of 2005. Students must complete six levels of English study at SDALI in order to graduate, but a first-term teacher can only instruct in levels one and two. In my first term, I had two adult level one, one level two, and one religion class to teach, as well as two hours-worth of junior classes to help out in.
When compared to my level one classes, where students often struggled to understand me when I told them they had a test the following day, my level two class was a teacher’s dream. The students were almost all close to my age, spoke clearly, in mostly complete sentences, and most made an effort to attend each day. Only one student is to receive the excellence award when an English class finishes, but this course had several participants worthy of such an honor. Of all of them, Ashlee’s grade was the highest.
Ashlee took her name and its idiosyncratic spelling from American pop singer Ashlee Simpson. She had lived for a time in Japan and had graduated with degrees in both Japanese and, due to the wishes of her parents, computer science. Though she’d completed college courses, she lived at home, with a protective family who did not want her out too late at night. One day, as our class practiced conversation, I asked her what she wanted to do with her career.
“I want to have my own business,” she said.
And I wanted for her to have it. I wanted to be the teacher who inspired her, who helped her to graduate from our institute, and taught her the English she needed to get ahead in the private sector.
The Psalmist once prayed, “May He give you the desire or your heart and make all of your plans succeed” (Psalms 20:4). While I wanted something good for my student, the Lord wanted something greater, and my own plans would only succeed when they did not run perpendicular to God’s.
In October I received word from another junior teacher at the Suncheon institute that Ashlee was applying to join our staff. Soon I would be asked whether I, as her teacher, would recommend her to the institute director. For my best student this was a task I would gladly take up. However, more requests would soon be asked of me.
Our director, Pastor In-Jeong Moon, asked me if I would join Ashlee and some other teachers in Bible study, a group I soon found myself leading. This was a responsibility I had not tackled before, and to say that I was nervous about this would be an understatement of truly Biblical dimensions.
Each morning, before Ashlee’s class began, we studied from the Adventist church’s lesson quarterly, dealing with the book of Ephesians. As we studied the lessons relating to familial relationships found within churches, the other members of the study group asked probing questions, some of which concerned the very core of our Christian beliefs.
“Why didn’t God give Adam and Eve more chances?” they would ask, or “Why couldn’t God be more specific about the kind of temptations we would face?” These are questions lifelong believers often don’t think to ask, but I tried my best to show them that we, as humans, would still fail with more chances and greater instructions. Without the Lord’s help, we can only fall short. I don’t know if my explanations were any asset to their faith; I was merely happy that I didn’t drive the participants away from hearing the quality material they were reading.
Ashlee listened to these questions and answers but said very little during our study, except what she was asked to read. Every few days, however, she would offer to pray at the end of our study time. Maybe it was because she was not a native speaker, maybe it was because she was new to the faith we were learning, or maybe it was the childlike perspective she seems to have toward the world; whatever the reason, she spoke in phrases I’d never before heard in prayer. Unusual though they were, these words were refreshing in their sincerity:
“Our God of love, we speak to you in a low voice,” she might begin. “Please give us your hug of love.”
In January, after leading Ashlee in some lessons of his own, Pastor Moon baptized her in the institute’s church. She continued to study the Bible with me some mornings, though she was sometimes too busy with teaching classes, trying to improve her own English and completing certification needed to teach Japanese. By the time I transferred away from the Suncheon institute in May, Ashlee had not completed level four, but she had easily been absorbed into the institute’s staff.
Not only did she have a lot to offer as a language teacher, but her computer studies were also handy. She had no plan to pursue computers as a career path, but whenever another teacher struggled with one of the office’s machines, they could always say, “Ashlee, can you take a look at this?” and the problem was usually solved within minutes. By the time I left Suncheon, it seemed Ashlee had always been there.
When I came to Korea, I had hoped that I would lead someone to Christ. I have since realized that who leads them there is not the point; that they give their hearts to Jesus is the important thing. Many had a role in this one child of God’s decision: the other teachers who’d welcomed Ashlee as one of their own; Pastor Moon, who gave her opportunities for her faith to grow; and ultimately she had to make the choice to give up her business goals for the task of working as a missionary teacher.
In Luke 15:10, Jesus said that “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” I also celebrated when Ashlee joined His family. This was not because I’d had anything to do with it, but just because I’d been there to see it happen.
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