Growing up with parents who were born and raised in South Korea, my entire life feels like one big ESL tutoring session. From defining ingredients on drain fluid products to clarification of common phrases such as “knock on wood,” they gave me many frustrating and humorous memories, as well as unexpected experience for my future (actual) tutoring.
When I officially and formally began tutoring, I naturally gravitated towards ESL as I grew up in that familiar environment. I found myself with three students, an Egyptian family, where the father and mother were well into their fifties and their son in his early twenties. As I worked with them, I found I learned just as much from them as they did from me. From my time here in America (23 years is longer than it seems), I learned that sometimes people are not always nice. In fact, they can be downright rude simply because they cannot tolerate the fact that foreigners are working just as hard to make a living here, especially if “these people” have not mastered the English language. “This is America, learn English!” My parents have been on the receiving end of that line, and as I learned, so had this family. The concept behind Harris’ article, on not only assisting the educational aspect of ESL students but also understanding them strikes me as most significant: “It is important, then, for tutors to remember that the ESL students elbow to elbow with us may feel inept or uncomfortable, that they see themselves as objects of ridicule…Those of us who have tried to negotiate our way in foreign countries with a smattering of the local language know the humbling feeling of incompetence or childlike dependence that we sink into when we try even simple tasks such as finding the appropriate bus or purchasing tickets. ESL students have to negotiate far more complex tasks in English while learning the language. It is our responsibility to be sensitive to their discomfort and to help them restore their sense of self-worth as they go through this process. If nothing else, we can do more to allay their fears of being objects of derision because they make mistakes and have to ask questions that native speakers do not ask” (Harris 214).
Tutoring offered a place where this family knew they would not be ridiculed, only encouraged. While the outside world may berate or dismiss them as foreign and therefore, ignorant, this was a safe haven where they could learn and freely mistake in efforts to become better. Similarly, my parents were able to turn to me with the comforting knowledge of familial trust and relationship. In order to teach someone, you have to give respect and earn it as well. The best way to remember this, for me anyway, is to keep in mind that someday I may be in a foreign country and sitting on the other side of the table. What then?