Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Adventures in tutoring

The company I had been teaching through has lost most of its corporate clients for now. But tutorials are still in demand, and some group lessons may begin soon.

I told the director that I was fairly busy in the evenings, but that if she had something in the morning or afternoon, I would be interested.

I'm not overly excited about tutorials after being trained to teach in a classroom situation, but it's always a good opportunity to build relationships. So when I was offered a tutoring position 3 days a week that didn't interfere with orphanage visits or church activities, I accepted.

Then the director called to give me a little more information. She informed me that it was two people, who would be studying individually. And she gave me the address.

As the first lesson approached, she called me again. "I just wanted to talk to you a little about the students," she said. "Do you know anything about Korean culture?" Ummmm...what? "My roommate's Russian-Korean," I offered. "Okay, that's good." And then I learned a little more about my students who were children in a Korean family, none of whose members spoke Russian. I also learned that the mother had asked about my education, career, and which state I was from. I suddenly wondered if I was going to be approved for the job, even though it is technically our director's right to make that call.

I felt a bit nervous going off to the first lesson with the Koreans. I also felt a bit deceived. There are a few international schools that I have considered working in, but I feel that I have come to serve Russians and not bury myself in an ex-pat environment. Yet, it's hard to be in Russia as a foreigner. It can't hurt to reach out to someone who might be experiencing culture shock.

I panicked as I was going out the door. Maybe my outfit and hairdo were inappropriate. Should I put on something more formal? A skirt? Too late, it was time to go. The metro took longer than I thought, and I felt sure I was going to be late as I exited onto the street. I had left no time for the potential of getting lost.

A bus had pulled up, and I jumped on, hoping it would get me a little closer to my destination. I didn't know the area very well at all. Lo and behold, the bus continued in the direction I needed, and I got off across the street from the address on my piece of paper.

I approached the huge apartment complex, which was the size of a small village. I circled it as usual, looking for an entrance. Two of the doors were on the street, but the apartment numbers didn't match. The rest of the entrances were in a huge gated area. I slipped in as someone was leaving. Then I found the correct door and punched in the apartment number. Pretty soon I heard a voice, but I couldn't understand anything. It definitely wasn't Russian, and sounded a little like, "Who's there?", but it also could have been Korean. "It's Elizabeth," I said. "Who's there?" "It's your teacher." The door opened.

A smiling boy in glasses greeted me when I reached the apartment, and we got acquainted. He said he was 13, which was older than he looked. He called his mother so that she would return from wherever she was. The apartment looked pristine and luxurious. I took off my shoes, which seemed expected. He didn't offer to take my coat, and I couldn't see any other coats around. So I took it with me into the kitchen. This was definitely not a Russian home. I felt as though I had stepped into another country.

"Would you like a glass of water?" the boy asked. "Yes, please." It would kill time, and besides, drinking water while teaching was always a good idea to keep my voice in shape.

We sat down at the table and started a lesson. Pretty soon, the mother, also smiling, entered. She had a notebook with her and asked me several questions. What was my degree, where had I worked in the U.S., and why I had come to Russia. I was glad that I had known about her inquisitiveness ahead of time. Besides, she was smiling, so it couldn't be something bad. Or was the smiling a part of their culture?

I did feel a bit perplexed when she asked for a copy of my passport. I was too nervous to ask why. I reasoned that she simply wanted to confirm that I was a native speaker, and ensure that I could be trusted with her children. Or perhaps her husband had a top secret position and they had to be careful. Still, it was odd.

After having a lesson with the boy, his sister came in for her turn. She introduced herself as Emily, because apparently she had been told that her Korean name was hard to pronounce. The mother came in a few times to ask questions, but didn't hover.

At the end, we confirmed times and procedures, all three of them looking at me and smiling and exchanging words with each other in Korean. I learned that they had been in Russia for only 5 months. When I said I would take the bus, the mother asked, "is it safe?"

I noticed that none of them were wearing slippers, and the floor under my feet seemed warm. Was it heated?

They asked if I wanted dinner, and I didn't know what to say. Was it a Korean custom to feed tutors? Would I insult them if I declined? I said that I had to get to a meeting and didn't have time. The boy offered me yogurt, and I accepted, taking it with me for the road.

I said goodbye and headed out into the elevator, then through the various gates, reentering Russia.


  1. Liz, never forget, people are insecure and they will say all kinds of stupid stuff. Do not take it too seriously.

    Some people may act like bullies, but they are very insecure inside. It cracks me up when I see guys, here in Florida, driving big trucks and chewing tobacco. They want to look like macho men, but I always wonder, what are they trying to compensate for? The are probably still very little, insecure boys inside.

    Same there. Hug them. Eat with them. Do crazy things. It won't hurt. Trust me.

  2. Vitali, you are probably right about not taking it too seriously. There is nothing to fear, and people are just people. However, when meeting someone from another culture, it is good to be attentive to what pleases or displeases him/her.

  3. So - we have something else in common! I am now spending about three hours a day teaching Koreans!

    They smile more than Russians, that's for sure! But I think the authorities are more "authoritarian" than Americans.

    I feel very comfortable with my students - in fact, really love them. I can't wait to hear more!

  4. I was hoping you would clue me in!


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