by Jonathan Balmer & Leanndra Padgett
In our grant years and our first years teaching in the United States, the similarities of four rural communities, two in Kentucky and two in Korea, unfurled before us. Their unique identities did as well. We grew to delight in the fact that kids are kids everywhere, and marvel at what made each town wholly its own.
“Diverse communities living in peace,” the Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry said, need “an understanding of the necessity of local differences, and respect. Respect…always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.[1. “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.” The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry]”
From the Commonwealth of Kentucky to the Land of the Morning Calm, or the Morning Calm back to the Commonwealth, we caught glimpses of the living souls in these places. Souls which were alike: all rural, all prone to invisibility, but all distinctive, each their own.
Franklin County, Kentucky, The United States
“Them Koreans gonna know what it is when I’m talking about going muddin’?”
“You might need to explain that one, Tyler.”
Them Koreans. He was trying to goad me into a correction. I wasn’t taking the bait.
“Do you know what I’m talking about when I say going muddin’?”
“Yes, I’ve been on an ATV before.”
“Really, Mr. Balmer? But you’re such a Yankee! I bet you’ve never shot a gun.”
I had shot a gun a few times—and grew up a mere one state north of Kentucky. Tyler must have mistaken me for some poor lost urbanite, mystified by the sight of horse farms and appalled at the ubiquity of chewing tobacco: a stranger to his town. Really, I loved the Commonwealth. I had lived there for five years.
“Let me see that draft. We have to send these to Ms. Padgett tomorrow. She needs to give these letters to her students in South Korea soon.” We had set up a letter swap between Korea and America.
Tyler’s draft was a rhetorical blitz of boasting “Our biggest state, Alaska, is 17.23 times as big as your country. We have farm equipment that costs $100,000,” cries for help, “Our leaders don’t know anything. We might end up a communist country like your friends the Chinese” and misguided attempts at gratitude “Thank you for inventing the Thai Smile restaurant. It has the best chicken fried rice.”
“Do you mind if I make a few suggestions?”
“My computer’s broke! I got work tonight. I don’t have time!”
“Monday, then. No later!”
I knew he had two jobs. The bell rang.
Encouraging cross-cultural learning proved more difficult than I thought.
Reading the letters from Leanndra’s class in Korea, I saw that many students asked about New York City and California. My students, if they asked anything about Korea, asked if the internet was really the fastest in the world, or mentioned they owned a Samsung phone. Both sets agreed school was a bore.
And both sets—students from Franklin County and Hwacheon-gun—lived in relatively rural areas. Yet their windows to one another’s countries were urban- and media-skewed. My students’ visions of Korea included the bizarre pop sensation Psy and shots of metro Seoul bustle in a Marvel movie featuring a Korean doctor in a supporting role. Her students’ ideas of America included Maroon 5 crashing L.A. weddings in their “Sugar” music video and Taylor Swift in an East Coast mansion in her hit “Blank Space.”
Rural places share mutual invisibility across cultures. It is easy to be an outsider to a rural place, special to be in the know.
Hwacheon, Gangwon-do, Republic of Korea
“How are the students?” my friends and family from back home asked me.
“What about Korean students?” my new Korean friends and host family wondered.
“They’re fine!” I would say.
“They’re cute and sweet. But, sometimes, it’s hard to keep their attention. The boys are either too loud or want to sleep.”
No matter who I explained this to, American or Korean, the listener would nod, smile knowingly and imply that, “Yes, boys will be boys,” or “That’s what you get in a middle school,” and end with a variant of “You’re a saint for working with that age group. Good luck!”
Though I’m no saint, I first realized my love for middle school education while student teaching in Scott County, Kentucky in 2013. Though it required creative classroom management, days at school always left me with a smile on my face. For instance, I discovered that the best way to keep Justin[2. All names have been changed] on task was to make a boundary on the floor with painter’s tape and tell him that it was his own fish tank and that he had to stay in it to survive. He and his classmates kept me in stitches and won my heart by showing me home videos of pet ferrets, giving me nicknames and constantly demonstrating that they were not yet too cool to want the teacher’s attention. Whenever I saw them in Kroger or Wal-Mart, they met me with smiles and cries of “Hi, Miss Padgett!” I was pleased to find that Korean middle schoolers were not terribly different.
In Hwacheon, the classroom management remained exciting. Several times I walked into a classroom to see Ji Hoo, the largest first grader[3. The Korean middle school’s first grade is equivalent to the American seventh grade] in the school, sitting in front of the storage cupboard with a guilty smile on his face. Inevitably, when I asked him to move his desk, one of the smallest boys in the school would tumble out, smiling and disheveled — free from his broom-closet prison once again.
Students still sought my attention and affection, leaving me notes and candy and joking with me in class. And they were still shocked, and often pleased, to see me around town.
My favorite part of my daily routine in Korea was the ten-minute walk home from school. As I crossed the bridge into the small, river valley town each afternoon, I was often passed by boys riding two to a bike. One would pedal while standing upright and the other would sit on the seat, a vision of balance. I trailed girls walking in rows, blasting K-pop music from their tablet-sized smartphones as they headed to a convenience store to grab a snack before hagwon.[4. Private academies in which many students study after school on a daily basis] Some were shy, of course, but others were willing to engage in limited conversation outside of the “English Zone” I inhabited for much of the week. I rarely left my house without hearing, “Hello, Leanndra Teacher!” in the streets of our idyllic little town.
In Hwacheon, one of thousands of rural Korean villages where everybody knows everybody, the downtown economy seemed to be largely supported by the after-school purchases of teenagers. There was no escaping the middle school demographic, even if I had wanted to. And I didn’t.
Middle school is such a special time of life. A time in which the first graders look like infants and the third graders look like adults. When some of the girls are wearing their skirts way too short and some of the boys smell like cigarettes after lunch, but when no one can keep a straight face when someone farts (the expression that third grader wore when he knew he’d been caught in the act!). The time in which a Pixar movie at the end of the semester still holds everyone’s attention. Even the most disinterested of third graders were captivated by Tangled, especially enjoying the fact that swashbuckling hero Flynn Ryder’s real name is Eugene.[5. “Eugene” sounds similar to a common female Korean name] A time when all the girls, and many of the boys, can sing the English lyrics to Frozen’s “Let it Go.” Caught in the snares of adolescence, the students are at once loving and rebellious, needy and independent, moody, ornery and loveable souls.
Bourbon County, Kentucky, The United States
Now that I’m teaching back in the states, people ask me, “What are the differences between Korean and American students?” To be honest, there aren’t many. Students are students. Now that I work in a rural, county school in Kentucky, I still wake up sleeping students and redirect restless ones. Though since returning to Kentucky, I have yet to be tricked into thinking that a hooded jacket, slumped over the desk and wearing a backpack, is a sleeping student. Hwacheon has you there, Bourbon County. Now I teach high schoolers, but the difference is minimal; they are just bigger versions of middle schoolers.
In Bourbon County, the boys dip[6. Chew tobacco] in class more than they smoke during lunch. The girls wear tight leggings instead of short skirts. But they still find flatulence hilarious, love to play basketball and enjoy the occasional Taylor Swift song (though Korean students definitely feel more strongly about her. One group of first grade boys would regularly miss part of their lunch to watch her music videos in the English Zone).
Okay, there are some differences. When I asked Korean students to write the answer to “What is your favorite season? Why?” they told me “Winter. Because of the sancheoneo ice fishing festival.” When I asked Kentucky students, at least one in each class answered “hunting season.”
They may not be catching sancheoneo, but my Kentucky boys also tell fishing stories, and warn me of the size of the catfish in Cave Run Lake. They are motivated to turn in assignments when their moms threaten not to let them hunt on the weekends. They discuss their guns and give me a hard time for mispronouncing the names of specific firearms. Hwacheon families own pepper farms; Kentucky students miss school to bale hay and birth lambs. But in the end, both sets of students are country kids with big hearts, living and working amidst rural beauty.
Uiseong, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Republic of Korea
“Ask me a question. Any question.”
The boy wore a back brace. I was hoping he did well on this speaking test. He came to my office every week to have Naver translator conversations.
“Does…Mr. Balmer have a gun?” He made a gun shape with his fingers the same way he had when he first told me his name, Park Gun Nyeon.
“No,” I stifled a chuckle. “Not all Americans own guns. I promise!”
Rural Korea is different from Kentucky. The 14-story apartment building I live in is a testament to that. I live in a place where winding alleys host the elderly who prepare the harvest of blackened garlic for sale in the graying autumn. Near my bus stop, as a tractor stalls traffic, boys flock to the PC room. Children loiter around the only fast food restaurant in town, Mom’s Touch. The 18-45 age demographic is conspicuously absent. Rural Korea has suffered an exodus of youth to an urban career promised land. Not enough land remains for the phenomenon of the suburb that thrives in the United States.
There is no question about if I belong. I truly am an outsider. There are five foreigners in Uiseong. All are English teachers. Some in Uiseong apologize to me that there is not much to do in a small town. They express their sympathy that I teach at a boys’ middle school. One said, “The boys, you know, they do not like to study.”
“He doesn’t like to study” found use as a synonym for “lazy,” sometimes with merit. But often I saw hints of other types of work, not laziness. Doubtless many boys who didn’t like to study were busy. Park Gun Nyeon missed two weeks of class because he fell off the second floor of a building. “Fallen 5m,” the translator read. “Not a bird!” Gun Nyeon added, and laughed. There had been a fire back at Gun Nyeon’s house in March and his family was in the process of repairing it. The two seemed connected; the injury and the work on the house. But Gun Nyeon’s explanations about his injury seemed to shift. Family needs resulted in student efforts being turned away from school stateside too. Tyler’s two jobs come to mind. Evidence of students’ work lurked in varied places within the rural areas I lived. A routine responsibility in country quiet.
I once asked a co-teacher why he moved back to Uiseong from Seoul. He said,
“It is impossible for me not to. My family has lived in Uiseong for 500 years.”
In the United States, I had not even been to a city that existed 500 years ago.
Maybe I will never fully understand Uiseong, or any rural place. At the same time, I am convinced rural places’ oft-overlooked dignity deserves defense. Maybe, for some folks, there is something sacred about the land, the earth, which they know. There certainly was nothing more literally down-to-earth than a pastime called muddin’ or braving a fall from the roof straight to the ground. If Gun Nyeon laughed about it, maybe I can too.
Leanndra Padgett was a 2014-2015 ETA at Hwacheon Middle School in Hwacheon, Gangwon-do.
Jonathan Balmer is a 2015-2016 ETA at Uiseong Middle School in Uiseong, Gyeongsangbuk-do.
Both graduated from Georgetown College in 2014.