What the ESL Classes Taught Me

by Hyewon Yun, Korea

Writer David Sedaris said that he felt like the “the lowest life form” while he was discussing on NPR his humiliating experiences of learning French in Paris. The statement might be extreme, but it does hold some truth. I worked as a translator back in Korea, and helped many English-speaking business people and professionals communicate with their Korean counterparts in mutual interactions.  My best efforts to change one language into another failed me sometimes because as foreigners, English speakers could not fully understand what was going on without a basic awareness of Korea’s cultural and social contexts. In this situation, they first floundered in a deluge of words, then abandoned themselves in a pool of loss, and finally had this I-have-no-idea look on their faces. This made them look not very smart, at best. However, the tables were turned when I came to America with my husband, who had been accepted as a business graduate student at Notre Dame.

I started to learn English at the age of 13 in school, majored in English education at college, and was trained and worked as a professional English translator. I often watched CNN and PBS, read Time Magazine and the New York Times, and loved Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and Iron Man; however, as soon as I landed in the middle of Midwestern corn fields, I immediately became a “foreigner” who had no idea about America and American life.

When I came to Notre Dame with my husband, I began participating in International Student Services and Activities’ English as a Second Language (ESL) for International Spouses Program. Part of my journey in the ESL classes was the process of better understanding American culture and history. One of the insightful topics during the classes was tall tales, which extoll courage, resourcefulness, as well as physical and mental strength of the grassroots heroes and heroines who pioneered this country long before Hollywood, New York fashion, Michael Jackson or Coca Cola. I could see the painful struggle of those people who crossed treacherous waters from around the world, endured hard labor to survive poverty or slavery, or took one tough step after another to build a better life in the New World behind these funny or exaggerated stories. I believe that this heroism, unsung outside America, has served as a basis for this country’s entrepreneurship, country music, hard-to-pronounce street names and beautiful national parks. Those tales helped me to understand the formation of this country a little more.

The ESL Program opened my eyes, not just to America, but also to the world. In celebration of Valentine’s Day every year and in the middle of busy presidential primaries this year, two different classes under the program had joint sessions to discuss love and wedding customs as well as presidential election systems in the students’ home countries. The students in the class represented almost the entire world: China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan from East Asia; India, Iran, Israel and Sri Lanka from South Asia and the Middle East; Armenia, Russia and Spain from Asia and Europe; the Dominican Republic and Mexico from Central America; Brazil, Chile and Uruguay from South America; and Cameroon and Mali from Africa. I was sometimes shocked, and at other times amused, by the stories. For example, Islamic Chinese hold a family-oriented hour-long wedding ceremony, which seems to be the combination of the Islamic faith and Confucian values. Iran surprised me with its great status of women and high divorce rates. Africa and Asia have similarities in putting communities and families before individuals. I never expected to meet a passionate Iranian feminist or modest, silent Chinese career woman (Chinese people are considered assertive and outspoken to many Koreans). I also learned what roles religion plays in American and Iranian politics, why the Chinese do not bother to vote, and how totally different countries have so much in common.

These experiences reminded me that I had a mold to break, which required more sincere effort and commitment than expected. It is true that I have learned things from CNN World Reports, BBC World Service, and The Economist, but they often cannot beat five minutes of small talk with real people from the regions that news media touch upon. The ESL student body is a microcosm that provides many chances for such interactions as it represents a big world across diverse countries, regions, skin colors, ethnic groups, cultures, and religions in a small classroom. This English-learning program encouraged me to break down the walls of preconceptions and misunderstandings and to see the world beyond the endless cornfields of the Midwest.

Some might say it is an exaggeration, but I believe these eye-opening moments help build trust, harmony and peace in the world. The lack of understanding often produces prejudice and discrimination. I couldn’t have learned this lesson living a comfortable life as a non-foreigner in Korea, nor did I expect to learn this lesson when I first signed up for the program. This is the education this unique and precious program can deliver – I couldn’t have learned it from any other part of American life. This is what the ESL program for international spouses taught me, and how it helped me grow out of feeling like “the lowest life form” in America.

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About ISSA

International Student Services & Activities, also known as ISSA, supports and advises the international student community at the University of Notre Dame. ISSA staff members are deeply committed to fostering a campus environment that welcomes the international student community and promotes cross-cultural interaction and understanding.

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