Written by Leah Sicat ETA’09-11

They’re some of the smartest high school students I know, so I felt shocked by their answer. When I quizzed them about where I was from in the United States, they said, “Philippines.” It was only the 2nd meeting of the “Media Discussion in English” club activity, but after nearly two years discussing the various aspects of American culture and sharing details of my winter and summer vacations home in Sacramento, I expected them to at least say, “California.”

Although commonly labeled a foreigner, as a Filipina American I may not be what some Koreans picture as “American.” While “foreigner” is a general term for people from various countries, “American” also reflects the different kinds of people of diverse backgrounds in the United States. An excellent example of this is the Fulbright ETA group itself. Fulbrighters represent different ethnic backgrounds, hailing from various regions, and bring textured understandings based on our upbringing in the United States. While the “native English teacher” role is more or less defined, the “cultural ambassador” role of promoting mutual cultural understanding is open to interpretation.

Korea is becoming more diverse. With changes in the Korean education system, such as international schools built on Jeju, and in English language education, such as Korea’s TOEIC, there are more English teachers in Korea from various countries. Also, more foreigners are emigrating to Korea as factory workers, college students, and immigrant brides. Transnational families with mothers and children living abroad and multicultural households with Southeast Asian mothers and mixed heritage children reflect an increasingly diverse society and the changing landscape of the Korean classroom.

As a personal experience representing Korea’s growing diversity, I will always remember the Saturday morning when I spoke five languages during my first day at Korean language class at the Damyang Women’s Center. I went to Damyang prepared to learn more Korean. However, I had no idea that I would have to utilize my own knowledge of not only English, but also Kapampangan, Tagalog, and Spanish. Walking into the Damyang Women’s Center was bewildering.

When I filled out the enrollment paperwork for the Korean language class and stated that I was an English teacher from the United States, it created confusion for the woman behind the registration table. She stared from my face to my blue passport and repeatedly asked me: if I was married; whether or not I emigrated from the Philippines; and if I was sure that my father was not Korean. Upon entering the classroom, my language instructor looked just as perplexed as the admissions woman when I said that I was Filipina American. Noticing that my classmates, all immigrant wives, hailed from the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, I understood almost immediately how I could be mistaken as one of Korea’s mixed children. I wondered if I could have been one of their daughters or even one of those women had circumstances been different or if diaspora had catapulted me in another direction. However, my biggest shock was when Melissa and her two children walked into the room.  Her two little girls looked just like her with their large, green eyes and thick lashes and wavy, light hair. When our language instructor quickly mentioned that Melissa was a foreign bride from the Dominican Republic, I greeted her, “Como estas?” Thanks to my former teaching days in Brooklyn and living in West Harlem, I had acquired a Dominican-style accent and vocabulary that surprised even my Chicana friends in California. Now it was Melissa’s turn to be shocked, and she asked me excitedly in rapid-fire Spanish about my name, nationality, and reason for coming to Korea. The rest of the class stared in amazement as we conversed in a language that was utterly foreign to them. Clearly, this was a morning of surprises.

I can only imagine my students’ shock when I introduced myself as their English conversation teacher. It’s safe to assume that I probably wasn’t what they expected. Their curiosity did not reflect being close-minded but showed that they were being critical. My presence offset their preconceived notions and presented a living, breathing, tangible visual representation of the United States’ ethnic diversity. This was the jumping-off point for our first lesson and the beginning of cultural exchange: to understand a language, it is important to understand the cultures and societies that speak it.

Ever astute and eager to learn, they grasped the concepts of diaspora, immigration, and nationality. They broke down the meaning of the word “multicultural” into “many cultures” while practicing their pronunciation. Watching video clips from BBC News, The New York Times, and YouTube, they listened, learned about, and discussed cultural diversity around the world. When they chuckled at photographs of certain foreigners, I asked them to consider whether they laughed because of the foreigners’ appearance or whether something funny happened. I explained that it was natural to laugh if something was funny or when they felt uncomfortable about a situation.

Knowing the number of hours my students studied English grammar and vocabulary, my goal was to increase their confidence and ability expressing opinions and complex ideas in English. I suggested that they view English as one of many communication tools. After all, a tool is only helpful when used appropriately and effectively. English is not the only language spoken in the United States and the United States is not the only country that speaks English. I emphasized the importance of speaking for meaning rather than translation by illustrating that since all societies are not the same neither are languages. Therefore, direct comparisons do not reflect the diversity in thought nor the different kinds of people in the world.

My students’ experiences influenced their perspectives about foreigners in Korea. Since some have studied English in the Philippines and many come from rural hometowns with Korean-Southeast Asian families, they initially assumed that I was a Filipina woman who married a Korean man, then became an English language instructor.

Last September, my own experience meeting the labor attaché from the Philippine Embassy taught me that there are no work visas for Filipinos to teach English in Korea. So, naturally, encountering a single woman who looks Filipina and teaches English is an anomaly. Holding an American passport, my status further confused many people in Korean society. For myself and other Fulbright ETAs, this combination was not a strange concept. However, since direct translations are not always helpful, I had to facilitate my students’ understanding of my ethnic background and cultural upbringing within the context of American society while teaching English and grappling with Korea’s increasing diversity.

As Fulbright ETAs we encourage communication in English and promote cultural awareness among our students. We are witnessing a critical point in Korean society and must therefore find new ways to be American cultural ambassadors.  Since our very presence in Korea as a diverse Fulbright ETA group already breaks the cultural bubble about being “American,” Fulbrighters have the opportunity to expand the breadth of experiences and social interactions in a changing Korea.