Author Archives: Mary Bohn

Communicating with Humor

Before coming to Beijing to study at Peking University, I had heard that using the internet as I had in the US would be a challenge. The Chinese government regulates which websites people can access, and sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix are all banned. When I arrived at my hotel and dorm room in Beijing, I quickly realized that the lack of access to certain websites was the least of my problems. When I got to my room, I realized that I had no internet access at all– I had no cell-phone service or wi-fi in my room. After using my broken Chinese to ask a hotel manager how to “use the internet,” the manager informed me that I would need to go to a cell-phone store to connect my phone and buy a router. At the time, I barely knew how to say “use the internet,” let alone “cell-phone plan,” “unlimited data,” “router,” or “I would like to purchase this router and cell-phone plan.” 

Because I came to Beijing a week before my program started, I needed to go by myself to set up a phone plan and buy the router. The day after I arrived in Beijing, I walked from my hotel to an outlet mall to find the merchant stall that the hotel manager directed me to visit. I naively expected the store manager might speak some English so we could communicate; as soon as I approached the stall’s clerk, he told me in Chinese, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak any English.” For the next hour, I embarked on a haphazard and messy process of using the few vocabulary words I knew to ask to “use the internet” for the amount of time I would be in Beijing. I did not understand the majority of the clerk’s responses. However, I was ultimately able to piece together my limited vocabulary to get a phone plan with unlimited data and a router. Though it was obvious that my Chinese level was painfully low, the clerk was actually pleased and amused by my efforts and even decided to give me a discount on my phone plan. I left the shop not just with internet access, but also with a new WeChat friend who told me about his family and the best places to visit in Beijing. 

The most significant part of this exchange was not my extensive knowledge of Chinese vocabulary and syntax. Rather, I was able to creatively piece together the bits of words, sentences, and phrases I had learned to make meaning and communicate with the person standing across from me. Learning Chinese gave me tools to communicate with the store clerk not just through words, but through laughing at my mistakes and overcoming my embarrassment to make a connection with another person. My language learning experiences have given me the tools to creatively and holistically communicate with others. Moreover, learning Chinese has given me the ability to approach unfamiliar situations, often when I do not know what is happening or how to say exactly what I want to, with confidence, persistence, and good humor.

Learning and Teaching as a Fulbright Indonesia English Teaching Assistant

“The statement should be a 1 page narrative that provides a picture of yourself as an individual․ It should deal with your personal history, family background, influences on your intellectual development, the educational, professional, and cultural opportunities (or lack of them) to which you have been exposed, and the ways in which these experiences have affected you․ Also include your special interests and abilities, career plans, and life goals, etc․ It should not be a recording of facts already listed on the application or an elaboration of your Statement of Grant Purpose․ It is more of a biography, but specifically related to you and your aspirations relative to the specific Fulbright Program to which you have applied․”

The simple exchange of “Hello, how are you today?” and “I am fine, thank you. And you?” between myself and the students to whom I teach English has become a precious ritual to me over the years. This seemingly mechanical interaction has been the starting point for much deeper relationships and communication between myself and my ESL students. Language education begins by learning such simple greetings and progresses towards communicating about interests, work, family, values, and culture. As both a language learner and teacher, “Hello, how are you?” has been the basis for the relationships I formed with people of completely different backgrounds from myself in Atlanta, Seoul, Beijing, and Phnom Penh, and also my ability to enable my students to communicate with others through English. 

My Korean host family (2014)

My commitment to language-learning began when I spent a year in high school studying Korean in Seoul through a State Department scholarship program. Leaving my predominantly white Tennessee town to live with a host family in a completely unfamiliar country made me fall in love with language’s ability to give me access to new people and cultures. The moments I shared with my host family—laughing at my mispronunciations and charades—taught me that the process of learning languages is equally important to relationship-building and positively representing my country as language is itself. 

When I started college, I continued my Korean studies and began learning Mandarin. I also began to explore the other side of language education: teaching. I was hooked after one week of teaching ESL to refugees during my first semester. I taught English to immigrants at a community center every Thursday evening. Together we laughed at our mistakes and discussed our backgrounds between activities, and I realized I had much more in common with them than I previously imagined as I shared my low-income background and they told me about their economic hardships. They told me about their struggles adjusting to US life and shared their triumphant moments speaking English, such as calling the plumber or making appointments. Seeing the connection between language and these immigrants’ livelihoods inspired my commitment to education for marginalized groups before I ever realized this was my path.

My students and myself in Phnom Pehn (2017)

In the words of my professor, I got the “ESL bug” from my first semester onward. I sought training in education for marginalized groups as an ESL instructor in lieu of Emory’s suspended Education Studies program. I drew on what was most effective in my language studies to inform my teaching practices, rejecting lecture-based teaching to focus on task-based learning, in-class discussions, and watching films to improve proficiency. I began tutoring ESL to international students and took an opportunity to teach an eight-week, self-designed ESL class while living at a drug rehabilitation center in Cambodia during the summer of 2017. The women I met had lived in the slums for years as addicts, and the Center in which they lived had no electricity, internet, or indoor plumbing. I came into the Center intimidated by my task, shocked by the systematic inequalities between myself and my students and overwhelmed by living so far outside of my comfort zone. These concerns faded as I formed relationships with the women and children. Like my experiences learning Korean with my host family and teaching ESL to immigrants, communication with these women began with simple greetings and grew to talk about food, our families, faiths, and hopes for the future. 

My love of language stems from my desire to connect to other peoples and cultures. This desire has driven my academics and personal pursuits as well as my pursuit of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. As an avid language learner and educator, I am excited to work as an ETA in Indonesia and continue to teach and learn from my students. 

Familiarizing the Foreign in Study Abroad

When I began self-studying Korean in high school, I was thrilled to use my broken language skills to connect with people in local Korean communities. Though I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with members of the Korean community, our conversations were comfortably padded by English. All of the Korean people I met in the US could speak English with far higher proficiency than I could speak Korean. However, when I arrived in South Korea to study abroad for a year and live with a Korean host family, learning Korean took on an entirely new meaning in my life. In Seoul, the majority of the people I met did not speak any English like the Koreans I met in the US. I had no English cushion to lean on. Korean was no longer a hobby which allowed me to better understand my favorite TV dramas; rather, learning and speaking Korean became an essential aspect of my daily life and survival in the totally new environment of Seoul. 

When I first came to Seoul, everything seemed unfamiliar and foreign. The signs appeared to be scribbles of lines and circles, the streets were filled with indistinguishable chattering in a language I did not understand. Food menus and subway maps were not only incomprehensible, but also inspired dread as I had to quickly figure out what to tell the waiter or which direction to go on the train. However, over the following months, I learned to read those circles and lines. I first learned to sound-out those scribbles and then learned what each of those words meant. Little-by-little, I started to make out what the man on the subway was complaining to his wife about and what the teenagers standing by the door were laughing about. The most difficult part of going to a restaurant shifted from understanding the menu to choosing from all of the delicious food it contained, and the subway became my most cherished tool for exploring Seoul and beyond. 

My friends from class at my Korean high school!

Studying abroad forced me to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Before I could learn Korean and integrate into Seoul society, I needed to learn to navigate discomfort and unfamiliar terrain with patience, persistence, and good humor. Studying abroad did not just advance my language skills; it allowed me to use my language skills to connect with Korean people and better understand my host culture as I was immersed in it. I left Seoul not just a better Korean speaker, but as a more culturally-aware global citizen who feels confident in my ability to solve problems, connect with others, and navigate unfamiliar terrain. Finally, studying Korean in Korea transformed a place and people from the alien to the familiar, giving me a second home which I would have never previously expected.

My Korean family!

Hi, it’s Mary!

Hello, I’m Mary! I am a fourth-year student majoring in East Asian Studies with a Global Development minor. I plan on entering the field of global development with a focus on education and literacy for refugees, specifically focusing on women and children. I am currently studying Chinese, but I am also working on an honors thesis with heavily relies on Korean sources and interviews. Between working on my thesis, my classes, and a few part-time jobs, I also love volunteering as an ESL teacher to refugees in the metro-Atlanta area and watching artsy Chinese films.

Finding people in the humanities

The belief that it is essential for individuals to be capable of dealing with complexity and diversity is at the core of a liberal arts education. There is no better way to gain the tools necessary for approaching the world’s complexity and diversity than through the study of foreign languages and cultures. On the surface, studying foreign languages enables one to communicate with a broader range of people through oral and written communication. Beyond this, language not only gives us communication skills, but also the ability to problem solve, an understanding of the world’s complexity, and, perhaps most significantly, empathy. Studying and using foreign languages enables one to see the world through the eyes of others, understanding how different cultural contexts shape beliefs, perspectives, and values, allowing us to see the commonalities among people across cultural and national borders.

I study foreign languages not just to learn about languages’ particularities, but to use the language to communicate. This is both a practical tool and, inevitably, a method of building my ability to problem-solve and navigate cultural differences. When I jumped into a Beijing taxi with only the English name of my destination and no app to translate directions, I had to find a way to tell my driver who spoke no English where I was going. Not only that, I needed the cultural knowledge to understand why the driver asked me why I wasn’t yet married, offer to introduce me to his nephew, and ask if I had ever shot anyone because I was American. Without some previous familiarity with Chinese culture and society, this conversation would have offended or even insulted me. However, years of learning and using foreign languages at all levels of proficiency had prepared me to approach this situation with confidence and positivity. Instead of an uncomfortable situation, this conversation became an opportunity to connect with my driver and, when all else fails, use charades to get my points across.

This is a picture of an address I showed to my taxi driver in Beijing on my first day in the city.

This is a picture of directions I would show to taxi drivers in Beijing when I had no idea how to get where I needed to go.

When I reflect on the knowledge and skills I have gained over the past three years at Emory, my study of languages and cultures stand out as essential to my personal and academic development. Studying languages has enabled me to directly connect with others both at Emory and abroad, and such connections have been my most significant source of learning. While I have studied anthropology, education, history, and literature in my classes, communicating with others through language has allowed me to put tangible faces to those to whom these subjects pertain. After all, humans, or people, are at the core of the humanities, and language is our key to connecting with and understanding people.