How to Succeed at Languages without Really Trying

From 1966 to 2006, except for the three years I tried to be a studio potter, I taught foreign languages—either German to Americans or English to Chinese and Koreans. During that time there was one student whose language proficiency was a really remarkable achievement. By the time I met Byoung-ok, he’d made himself bilingual and bicultural. I thought at first that he’d gone to elementary and middle school in the United States–his polite and deferential manner made an American high school seem unlikely. He told me he’d spent only four or five weeks in an English-speaking country. He majored in Read More

An Irishman’s Culture Shock

What’s culture shock? When people arrive in a new country, they’re said to go through an adjustment process which might be divided into stages: 1) curiosity and exploration, 2) culture shock, 3) some acceptance of the new culture, 4) rejection of previous ideas and/or their home culture, 5) acculturation and assimilation—fitting in. A person may pass through all five stages or may get stuck in one of the stages and never move beyond it. Here’s an example from a 1992 interview.

Martin was a frequent and favorite dinner partner, a good-looking young man with the Irish pale skin, dark hair Read More

Confucian Ways of Life and Death

In 1988, John and I taught in the same language school. When I observed his class a few days after I arrived in Seoul, he asked the students, “Now, when your father was young, did he have to do a deep bow each morning outside his father’s bedroom door?”

“Well, no, maybe not.”

“But your grandfather did, didn’t he?”

“Yes, of course.”

John had become more a participant in traditional and modern Korean culture than a great many Westerners have. Tradition seemed to hold a particular fascination for him, as it does for many unconventional people. He has carved out Read More

A Winter Walk up Gyoungju’s South Mountain

Gyoungju–also spelled Gyeongju, Kyongju–is the seat of the ancienet Shilla 0r Silla dynasty (57 BC to 945 AD), Because there are so many sights worth seeing outdoors, the town is called “the museum without walls.” It’s my favorite vacation spot in South Korea.

At least it isn’t raining. You sit on the bus watching town and countryside pass by. When you let your eyelids droop, you can almost feel your body sink into the quilts on your heated floor back at the Hanjin Yǒgwan. Hot water pipes under the floor, what a cozy way to heat a room.

Gyoungju … Read More

A Monk’s Tale

You are sitting on a porch near the meditation hall of a Buddhist monastery on Hong Kong’s outlying island of Lantao. It is February 1986. Around you are grassy hills, and two islands lie light blue in the distance. It is difficult to imagine anything more peaceful. The man sitting beside you is a Chan [Zen] Buddhist monk, a soft-spoken Englishman with a strong Cockney accent. He is dressed in traditional monk’s garb, a long tunic with Chinese fasteners and baggy trousers pulled tight at the bottom. The sleeves aren’t long enough to cover the heavy covering of paisley tattoos Read More