Changing Angles: A Look Into One Korean FLTA's Experience in the United States

January 21st, 2017

FKAR had the opportunity to interview Heemang Kim, a grantee of the Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) program, for this winter’s newsletter. The Fulbright FLTA Program is designed to develop Americans’ knowledge of foreign cultures and languages by supporting teaching assistantships in over 30 languages at hundreds of U.S. institutions of higher education. The program offers educators from over 50 countries the opportunity to develop their professional skills and gain first-hand knowledge of the U.S., its culture and its people.

Heemang shows off her newly-acquired baking skills.

How did you choose to apply for the Fulbright Grant?
Before I went to graduate school, I was a teacher at a middle school in Mokpo and while there, I worked with Fulbright ETAs. I was inspired by their passion and hard work. Fulbright’s mission of cultural ambassadorship especially fascinated me and encouraged me to apply for the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) program.

How long is your grant period in the U.S.?
9 months; I started my grant in August 2016 and will finish in May 2017.

Can you briefly tell us about your day-to-day life in the U.S.?
I’m working and studying at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. My first priority as an FLTA is teaching. This semester, I’m teaching an advanced Korean-language course to undergraduate students. Also, I hold Korean cooking and conversation class every month; so far, we have made 팥빙수 (patbingsu), 김밥 (kimbap), and 떡볶이 (tteokbokki). In addition, I volunteer at a primary school for community service once a week. I teach the children about basic Korean language and Korean culture.

What do you like the most/the least about the U.S?
The best thing about the U.S is variety. Various people from different backgrounds work and study together, and they respect each other. I’m learning from them every day.

What do you miss the most about Korea?
양념통닭 (Korean fried chicken) and talking to my close friends and family in my mother tongue.

What are the biggest differences you see between the university experience in the U.S. and in Korea?
I was really surprised when a student started eating a sandwich in the middle of my class (laughs). Besides that, campus life is very similar between Korea and the U.S.

What is the general perception of the U. S. in Korea? Are those perceptions correct? In your opinion, what are U.S.’s greatest strengths and weaknesses?
Before I came here, my knowledge about the U.S was mainly from Hollywood movies. I thought people in America would develop romantic relationship easily, but I was totally wrong about that. Everywhere, people live and love in a similar way because love is the most basic instinct of humanity.

In my opinion, the greatest strength of the U.S is tolerance for individual differences. I think that’s because the U.S earned its freedom from its history and experience, and not from books. Therefore, seeing American people acknowledge the differences among one another is very important to me. The greatest weakness is the public transportation… I miss the buses in Korea (laughs).

Heemang explores Chicago’s “Bean”

Can you describe a situation in which you felt it necessary to be an ambassador for your country? For example, has there been a situation in which you needed to clarify erroneous stereotypes or assumptions about Korean culture? How did you handle that situation?
In the midwest area of the U.S, where I’m staying, there is limited diversity compared to other areas in the U.S. So, sometimes I encounter various questions or preconceptions about Korea or Asian countries. Sadly, most of those questions are awkward or sometimes offensive. For example, “Are you Chinese?”, “Do Asians speak the same language?”, “Do you need Kimchi?” (when I was teaching calligraphy).

At first, when I had these types of experiences, I was confused because I wasn’t sure if it was offensive or if I was overreacting. Later, when I told the people that it was offensive, most people said they didn’t mean it in a bad way, which made me feel more confused. However, I talked to many friends, professors, coworkers, and students about this issue, and they shared advice with me. I tried to explain why I get offended by the questions, and we discussed how I should deal with these situations, and what I can do to promote my country as a cultural ambassador.

First, I realized that the reason I felt offended by those questions was that sometimes I interpreted them as, “My [mother] language is not sophisticated enough that I can understand other languages and cultures,” or “I don’t care about what you are doing now. I just want to make sure I know something about your country.”

Second, I could deal with these issues with a clearer reaction and without feeling too emotional. For example, I can notify them if I felt offended by it, first. Then, I can explain how it could be interpreted by other people. Finally, as a cultural ambassador, I can give a better explanation of my culture. The most difficult thing about this is not being emotional. One of the most important things we all should remember is, no one culture is better than another, but there are varieties of cultures, and we should appreciate them as they are. I hope that I can do my job as a cultural ambassador successfully, and that I can contribute making a better world where people understand each other.

Has your experience here helped you gain an ability to communicate effectively within and among diverse cultural groups?
Oh, definitely. My experience as an FLTA has changed all my prejudice against different cultures. And I’m still learning a lot. I used to take a long time to become friends with new people because I felt insecure with strangers, and I was afraid of being rejected. However, my FLTA colleagues and the many nice people here taught me that there are no barriers to being friends, and if you open your heart to them, they will open theirs to you, and every culture deserves to be respected. I’m really grateful for my FLTA friends because they are very patient with me and kind to me. Rather than “Foreign”, the ‘F’ of FLTA means “Family” to me.

Finally, what is your favorite English slang word/phrase you’ve learned since arriving in the U.S.?
I’m hangry!