I’ve started studying Korean again after a gap of over twenty years, but almost gave up after the second lesson!
All three of my children had signed up for a Korean class run by the Korean Embassy in London, and I decided to take the plunge as well. It would be something to do, I figured, following a year in which opportunities for entertainment have been few and far between. It had begun fairly well. We were a group of sixteen in that first week’s class: three men, twelve woman and the teacher, who’s also a woman. It was a bit of a struggle to be reading the Korean script again and to see words long ago forgotten, but it was a nice group of people and I shared with the team at the Chaplaincy in our Friday meeting how excited and motivated I was to be studying.
The second week’s lesson was a different story. The other two guys had dropped out already, so besides the teacher, it was me and twelve young women who all seemed to know the answers to the questions being asked. I spent over two hours in almost complete confusion and feeling more and more stupid. There were frequent references to the course book which none of us have received yet. At one point the teacher asked me a question. There was part of a sentence on the screen on the left and I had to match it with one of the phrases on the right. The writing was in Korean script and it was very small. Luddite that I am, I am still stubbornly refusing to use the large screen that my children got me for Christmas. The phrases on the right contained vocabulary that was fairly easy, at least it would have been for me twenty years ago. I was unable to answer the question, and I felt humiliated.
There was a brief respite of five minutes when we were sent into breakout groups of two in order to chat in Korean. I was with a very friendly young woman and she mentioned in passing her second screen but I didn’t put two and two together at the time. We were quickly back into the big group and I was back into confusion. I went to bed that night tired and depressed and woke up in a similarly dark mood. I was lifted by a lovely zoom Mass with our Gerry but after that I sank back into my funk and wondered about knocking the Korean on the head. It was supposed to be a bit of light relief during lockdown: why put myself through the pain. I also, following a short lull, had some more busy weeks coming up at work.
And then, by some miracle, everything changed. It turns out that the Korean course books can be found on-line. And it turns out that all of my children have, during their classes, had their book open on a second screen. And, the most amazing thing of all, I found out from my youngest son Sean that with the Google Translate camera function on my phone I can point it to Korean script on the screen and it instantly translates it into English! I realised that the women in my class quite possibly had a second screen open during the lesson, on which they could see the course textbook! I promptly found the book online and have been assiduously studying it in preparation for the third week’s lesson! It was game on again! I also had a nice exchange of e-mails with the teacher. She had posted on the on-line class forum a picture of Jeju Island in the spring. Yim Soon and I visited the island in 1992 after our traditional Korean engagement ceremony. Lying off the South coast of South Korea it’s called the honeymoon island and when we got on the plane from Seoul’s Kimpo airport it was almost entirely full of honeymoon couples, most of whom were wearing matching outfits. That’s another honeymoon tradition in South Korea, besides going to Jeju island. The highlight of that trip was walking up Hallasan, the highest mountain of South Korea and the picture at the start of this blog shows us at the top, next to the volcanic crater. I sent the photo to my Korean teacher and she was touched by that.
A couple of days after my traumatic linguistic experience I was chatting about it with Paul, one of the fantastic team at the Chaplaincy. I said to him that maybe it was good sometimes for us to step out of our comfort zone. He mentioned to me a book which has the wonderful title, ‘If you want to walk on water you have to get out of the boat.’ Daniel O’Leary, the inspirational priest and writer who died in 2019, encourages us in one of his books to do one thing every day that scares us.
In his Best Man speech at our wedding, my friend Tony pointed out that the words human, humour and humility all have a common root, which is the Latin word ‘humus’ meaning earth. It’s perhaps no bad thing for us now and again to be brought down to earth. As we hear each year on Ash Wednesday, from dust we came and to dust we shall return. Sobering words indeed, if ever we should get carried away by any fancy notions. Ash Wednesday marks as well the start of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, being tempted by the kind of things that all humans are tempted by, things like power and prestige. And the ultimate trials come to Jesus on Good Friday, when he is put through the utmost humiliations.
There has always been debate in the Church about whether Christ was human or divine. Despite the Council of Chalcedon in the 5th Century declaring that both natures were present, human and divine, the Church through the ages has tended to emphasise the divine over the human. I think this has had some untoward consequences. It can lead to unrealistic expectations being placed upon the shoulders of people onto whom we have projected almost God-like status. This could in turn have been a factor in the terrible and multiple abuses that have been perpetrated by people of the Church. The reasons why a person abuses are complex and I have no intention of giving simplistic explanations, and even less of excusing such acts. I would just offer the observation that the higher the ‘spiritual’ pedestal people are placed upon, the further and harder the fall to earth.
I hope that in the Church we will come to see that, like Jesus, we really do need to fully embrace our humanity and to stay as close to the earth as we can; and to have people around us who can bring us down to earth when necessary. As for the Korean, I’ll try and enjoy it and have fun with it. And if there are any further humiliations in the lessons, as surely there will be, I’ll try to welcome that as a sign of being human, just as Jesus was. I’ll also sure as heck from now on have two screens open during the class!