of One Purpose
“Be completely honest here. Are you someone who likes to spend money or save it?”
Lizzie pauses for a moment. It’s a pretty simple question. She furrows her eyebrows and begins to piece her answer together. The man listens intently and nods approvingly. A patient smile ripples across his face as she stumbles over the idiom “to pour money down the drain.”
The man’s name is In Wook Lee and he is a 62 year-old Korean senior. Having worked for over 30 years in finance, Lee retired seven years ago. He now has the time for weekly discussions with Lizzie in Korean. Lizzie (which in Korean sounds like Lee-Jee) is a sophomore at Princeton University who hails from Austin, Texas and loves languages. This pair is one of seven that connect weekly through SAY.
There’s something special about it.
Even 14 weeks and 104 conversations later, my heart still flutters each time the call clicks through and the senior and student meet through the computer screen. They are two people from two different countries. Although they inhabit two different generations, they are of one purpose: to have an engaging discussion.
All of this was just a half-baked idea back in May. I was barely five months deep into my job at the senior welfare center in Seoul as part of my two years of Korean military service. Back then, my role was simple: to wash dishes in the industrial kitchen. For those first few months, scraping hardened rice off plates and stirring steaming cauldrons was my daily routine.
It was a humbling experience. I had never performed such thankless manual labor, day in and day out, for months on end. But there was something meditative about it, and I had so much time to think. In my absentminded squat in the corner of the kitchen, I had a full view of the cafeteria. I watched as the seniors took their plates, sat down at an empty seat and ate their meals. Sometimes, through the humdrum drone of the kitchen, I would overhear their conversations.
“I was in the bottling business. I miss feeling productive. These days, I just feel like a burden on my children…”
“I want to meet new people again. I want to see the world. If I were just twenty years younger...”
Listening to this reminded me of the countless articles I had read and reports I had seen about Korea’s rapidly ageing population. In view of that, what I had overheard made much more sense. I had come in contact with a symptom of a pervasive problem: seniors were looking for ways to feel purposeful. What, however, would be a good solution? The question lingered and I let it bother me. In a world where the problems of an ageing society were front-and-center in the public discourse, I had landed in the best seat possible to view it unfold. And maybe if I observed long enough, something would strike me.
“Students want to practice English. And seniors just need someone to talk to.” In May, I stumbled upon a video. It was a promotional clip for a program connecting English language learners in Brazil with American seniors through video calls. I watched as a smiling old man in a maroon sweater held up a photo of him and his wife. On the other side, a young Brazilian student with a shock of dark hair observed the old black and white photo. “You were so handsome, and you still are!” he said in halting English. Another senior-student pair shared stories about their families. The seniors’ faces light up as they asked talked: Have you been to America? What do you like to do on your free time? What are your goals? Watching the conversation unfold, I realized that here was a potential solution to the problem I was observing. Could I do something similar at my senior center?
The idea now had a physical form: a sticky note that read “video chat program with foreigners” in Korean. The sticky note produced a meeting and the meeting spawned a string of emails. In the span of two weeks, a group formed with a shared objective: to start a language program between Princeton University students and Korean seniors. “This could really work,” said Joowon Suh, the senior lecturer of the Korean language program. “I want my students to become more confident with speaking with different kinds of people who have different kinds of accents and dialects, which we cannot provide here.” Though her words reassured me, I was not certain that both the seniors and students would welcome each other. I was certain, however, that we were about to start something very special.
“I think I’m getting the hang of it now,” says Lee as he turns off the desktop. He adds that the conversation felt too short and he wished he had more time to talk to Lizzie. We exchange our goodbyes and I overhear him talking with a friend on his way out of the computer cluster. “It’s great. I feel like I’m doing something for my country.” I grinned.
Every day, I see the seniors in SAY invigorated by the contributions they are making.
SAY has transformed these Korean senior citizens into educators who help and encourage eager students of the Korean language in other countries. Perhaps it was this sense of value on a cultural and national level that inspired Lee’s comment. SAY empowers seniors to become cultural ambassadors who, through engaging discussions, become effective language partners to Korean language learners around the world.