“What is different in Malaysia?” I ask my new Korean students, carefully enunciating each word.
“So hot. Ma-lay-si-a so hot. Korea have the winter. So cold. Here, always sun,” a student explains as she points out the window to the blazing afternoon sun.
She is one out of a group of students I work with who, just weeks ago, relocated to our rural Malaysian town from Korea. Life is very different here, from what I understand.
As an English as an Additional Language (EAL) teacher in Asia, I have a unique opportunity to engage with young students from many cultures who speak many languages.
However, English is the only language spoken in the classroom. That’s not true during play time, though. You can hear Mandarin, British English, Tamil, Korean, and Bahasa, and sometimes a combination of these languages, echo through the school.
But, when everyone needs to understand each other, guess which language we speak…
Lucky me, a native English speaker, I’m advantaged in this situation.
On the contrary, put me in a room full of native Korean speakers, and it’s me who is clearly disadvantaged.
Time to take a walk in someone else’s shoes…
Yesterday, ten of my EAL students had their first opportunity to chat with our one and only Korean-speaking teacher. While we strongly encourage speaking English in the classroom, they were encouraged to speak Korean for this chat. I listened in and provided questions in English which were translated in Korean.
I was humbled as I “walked a mile in their shoes.”
I sat with them completely clueless to what was being said.
While I listened to the Korean flow through the room, I tried to pick out similar sounds. I heard one or two. I tried to read facial expressions and pick up on mannerisms: a few laughs, smiles, nodding heads, rolling eyes.
I caught a handful of English words; a couple numbers, my own name, and a few school subjects were recognizable. In a 30-minute conversation, that’s all I picked up – a couple words from my own language.
Where I felt unfamiliar, they found familiarity.
Where I lacked understanding, they were understood.
I officially felt “in their shoes.”
I walked away with a greater sense of empathy from this experience of walking a mile in their shoes. Their languages and experiences are quite different to mine. Those differences are part of what makes life so awe-inspiringly beautiful.
Rather than dismiss others or blame them for being different, let’s seek to understand and see the beauty in these differences.