Gina Goosby: Volunteering at Kyoto Korean School

This semester, I set out intending to continue volunteering at Bazaar Cafe. However, when I was approved to conduct research at a local Korean school, I figured it would be an excellent opportunity to try a new CIP. With the help of a Doshisha student, I arranged to lead some of their middle school English classes. Being a foreigner and a complete novice at Korean (this school requires students to speak only Korean while on campus), I was worried that I would be eyed with suspicion or even flat-out rejected. But when I arrived, the students and faculty greeted me warmly — students would wave and say “Hello” when they saw me, as did teachers. Classes centered around speaking: class began with a Q&A where the students and I took turns asking simple questions. Then, I guided students in reading aloud from their textbooks or gave a short speech and quizzed them on the content. We ended each class by learning and singing a song.

I think I learned more about Korean culture than Japanese culture during my CIP, but I imagine there are some overlaps in the culture of Japanese and Korean schools. Little things, like the fact that students greet teachers in the hallway or that everyone knows at least three Disney songs, did not surprise me. What did surprise me was that at this particular school, teachers and students interact almost casually: outside of class time, teachers seemed more like older cousins, especially to the high school students.

I had expected a rigid barrier of formality between teachers and students. I think the difference stems from the school’s importance beyond education in just history or math — Korean schools are one of the pillars of the Korean minority community in Japan. At school, students are treated as young members of the community, which in my experience is a bit like a large family. Even though I am not exactly a member of this “family,” the friendly atmosphere helped me feel at ease.

If you are good with middle schoolers and speak Korean and English — or simply have an interest in Koreans in Japan — I highly recommend this CIP. The teachers I spoke to expressed interest in having more native English-speaking volunteers. Who knows, you may even get a feature in the nationwide Korean school magazine like I did!

4 thoughts on “Gina Goosby: Volunteering at Kyoto Korean School

  1. Your CIP is so awesome and I definitely learned a lot about Korean schools from your blog. I was surprised to read that the teacher and students actually interact quite casually at the beginning. What I had in my mind was those scenes from [GO] where the teachers are forcing students to hold onto their identity as Korean (NK in this case) and there indeed seems to be a rigid barrier. Then, your explanation of the Korean schools as one of the pillars of the Korean minority community is amazing. I have never thought from that perspective.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sillin! Yeah, I think the depiction of Korean schools in GO is a mix of fact and fiction. Although they did once have many of the practices shown in the film, many of them — confession session and such — were removed many years ago. Regarding its position within the community, I’d read a lot about it in various papers, but seeing that dynamic play out in person was entirely different. An absolutely incredible experience!

  2. This sounds like a wonderful and unique experience! I have met people who have taught English in South Korea but I am sure the dynamic is a little bit different given that the school is in Japan. Did you learn anything in particular on how this community is integrated into the rest of Japanese society? Working at a middle school, I’m sure you have made memorable relationships.

    • Good question, Elvis. I was curious about that myself. The teachers told me that students who participate in sports and music compete alongside students from local schools. Apparently, their band and soccer team are pretty strong in the competitive scene! For students as well as teachers, there are occasional exchange events where they get to meet communities from Japanese schools in the area. Although I think those are useful, part of me still cannot help but wonder how successful such contact is at creating long-lasting friendships outside of the Korean school community. I know that I hope to keep in touch with the teachers who helped me this semester!