On my way home from my grandmother’s place, I noticed that the entire 4 blocks next to her place had been marked for clearing. My grandmother said an apartment complex is coming in. I stood there for awhile in front of those hollowed out stores and tried to remember it as it was. I had walked by those stores and houses every day last year on my way to the library — a small friend chicken place where an elderly couple were always bustling about, a pizza place that I never got to visit, an auto shop run by a handful of middle aged men, and our old 만화방 / comic book renting store on the hill. During the summer months, my mother would borrow an entire armful of Korean comic books from the 만화방 아저씨 and all three of us — my mother, sister, and I — would be splayed out on my aunt’s old bed binge reading them. My sister and I would be lying down in a neat assembly line next to my mother, waiting for her to finish the first book. But more often than not, we would become too impatient and start reading the second book, then when my mother finished she would hand me the book, and I would be reading everything out of order. The book traveled down the row from my mother to me then my sister, and by the end of the day, there would be a stack of an entire comic book series next to my sister, completed. The bookstore sat quietly, only reflecting back my own image under the street lamp. When I got closer, I could see that the place was now closed and completely gutted out, just like the rest of the area. All the building in the area were completely empty, and the outside of the buildings were slashed with blood red spray paint marking them for destruction: 철거 대상 / Target for Clearing. 이주 완료 / Move Completed. The words splashed so carelessly across their shop doors and signs that at first I couldn’t make out the words. In between the shops, there were old brick houses with 마당 gates that had been left open and piles of trash with accompanying rodents loitering outside their doorsteps. I had never known that there had been so many houses in that part of town. The entire thing made me feel hollow, like a chunk of myself had been taken from me. I didn’t realize that I had had a relationship with the people, the chatter, and the buildings of this part of town.

I wonder if this is what “development” and “progress” is supposed to feel like. People being ripped out of their homes and their absence left rolling around in the dark alleyways. And leaving the rest of us staring at dark windows and an eerie hollowness of the town, wondering when they are next. “시골같이 살 수 있는데가 없어,” my grandmother told me. I felt so helpless hearing that a large part of her life — the section of town that had sustained her relationships and daily routine away from my abusive grandfather — had all been cleared out. I wonder if companies think about stuff like that. The grandmothers who will now have to sit home alone instead of chatting with their friends at their favorite salon. The people who will forever look at the shiny new buildings and remember the ghosts of their childhood. Middle aged men who have lost yet another smoking-friendly gathering space to redevelopment. How many will miss their absent neighbors, how they will have to forge new connections with one another in an ever shrinking space, and how long we will remember the people of that neighborhood who once greeted us and welcomed us home.


Linguistic Imperialism

When I asked Andrew of his plans after graduation, he told me that he wanted to teach English in Russia for a gap year.

Umm… something didn’t feel quite right. I have never felt comfortable with well-off, white American college students going to a developing country to teach students English. Logically, nothing is wrong. There is a demand in the global market for native English speakers. The students are merely providing the supply to meet the demand. In fact, Andrew was better qualified than most of the other students; he was fluent in Russian and understood Russian culture.

But I still kept telling him that I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I called it linguistic imperialism. I didn’t like that he was just breezily spending a year in Russia. I didn’t like that he wasn’t certified as a teacher. I didn’t like that he would be going in to Russia, already privileged as an American, versus the local Russian English teachers. I didn’t like that teaching would be a side job for him. I didn’t like that “teaching English in a developing country” was something exotic and exciting to do for a gap year — to “discover himself.” I didn’t like that teaching English was thought of as saving these kids from the poverty in their country and helping them become more competitive in the global market.

Most of these concerns are unfounded. I don’t know what his motivations were. I don’t know what Russia’s demand for English teachers is like. There are also numerous federal programs that promote the teaching of the English language abroad (ex: Fulbright English Teaching Assistanceship). But regardless of intentions, the act of teaching English in Russia  could be so easily be tainted with the idea of being a savior for these children and succumbing to the white man’s burden. Plus with all this talk of Americans teaching English to other countries, my mind immediately jumped to a despicable Uncle Sam cartoon from the late 1890s.



This image is a 1899 cartoon of Uncle Sam “teaching” the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Cuba. A black man washes the window. The Native American sit at the steps, reading. A Chinese boy stands in the doorway.

The blackboard in the back of the room reads:

“Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not…The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact…England has governed her colonies whether they consented or not. By not waiting for their consent she has greatly advanced the world’s civilization…The U.S. must govern its new territories with or without the consent of the governed until they can govern themselves.”

I know that imperialism in the form of colonies or governmental control seems like a far jump from teaching English in Russia, but in a way, the students are just part of the imperialistic endeavors of America. Regardless of intention, their actions perpetuate ideas of American superiority and dominance.

There is very little evidence out there to back me up on this linguistic imperialism idea. Like I said, it’s just a gut feeling. But if you’re interested, read up on the BBC article, BBC article “Linguistic Imperialism Alive and Kicking” — they have some neat little links there as well.