About two years after moving back to Canada, finished with school and having little luck finding a job, I decided to devote some of my considerable free time to volunteer work. I found a settlement agency close to home that was looking for someone to lead an English conversation class for new immigrants every Friday morning.
I remember how terrified I was that first Friday, but I needn’t have worried: only three Korean ladies showed up. We had a lovely, pressure-free chat about nothing in particular. Every now and then, they’d ask me to explain something I’d said, and then they’d scribble it down in their notebooks. They taught me how to say hello in Korean, and laughed gently when I tried it out on them.
The next week there were seven people in the class. The week after, we had to scramble to find enough chairs to seat everyone. I later discovered that the sudden interest in the Friday class had less to do with my English skills and sparkling personality than my accent. Apparently all the other volunteers were new Canadians with “foreign” accents, and the students wanted to hear how a “real” Canadian spoke. I pointed out that Canada is a nation of immigrants, and it’s important to understand English in a variety of accents, but to no avail. In an agency that boasted an impressive variety of ethnicities and languages among its staff and volunteers, the newcomers valued that flat Ontario accent.
I loved Friday mornings. My favourite moments occurred when someone said something funny and the whole group erupted into laughter. I always felt, in those moments, that we’d transcended whatever ethnic or linguistic barriers were keeping us from truly getting to know each other.
My core group, the original three Korean ladies, never failed to show up. On the terrible day that the agency abruptly shut its doors due to lack of funding, theirs were the only email addresses I had. We all agreed we were having too much fun to stop getting together, and so to this day we continue to meet every Friday morning at a local coffee shop to chat about our lives. My family calls these gabfests “K-Talk,” and my Korean friends, the “K-girls.”
The K-girls are always so appreciative of the measly two hours a week I give them, as though it were some enormous sacrifice on my part. What they don’t understand is how much I look forward to our meetings. They’re a fun bunch, and they give me so much more than I give them.
I’m in awe of their courage in leaving everything behind to move to a strange new land. I’m amazed by their perseverance and humility as they struggle to learn English. I’m touched by their generosity, never more so than when they show up at my house with enough home-cooked bulgogi to feed an army. I’m humbled by their friendship, and feel so very lucky to have Joann, Julie, Moon Hee, Helen, Flora, and Isabel in my life.