Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Motivation: what you need to learn Korean

(Bored soldiers.  I knew that feeling so well.)

By the fall of 1969 I had completed my training in Military Intelligence in the U.S. Army at Ft. Holabird, MD and was awaiting orders for my first duty station after graduation.  We were all nervous because this was during the heaviest years of fighting in Vietnam and most soldiers were sent there, regardless of their specialty in the military.  The Tet Offensives in 1968 and 1969 were massive and bloody, and they were on the mind of every GI.  So my wife and I were on pins and needles waiting for the orders that would determine the next direction of our lives.

On the day in question in late August, I was about to play a tennis match after duty-hours for the Ft. Holabird team against another military base. One of my friends on the court yelled at me about whether I had gotten my orders today.  We had, in fact, gotten them, but I had not had a chance to talk to Robin about them.  But Robin heard the question, jumped to her feet and marched across the tennis court directly over to me, balls flying past her head in both directions, and demanded to know if I had received orders.  I told her not to worry; I was assigned to go to language school in Virginia.  How bad could that be?

So in September, I began Korean language training in Arlington, VA at a new complex of high-rise buildings called Crystal City.  That area is so developed now that I couldn't even find the building where I spent so much time when I visited a couple of years ago.  The Defense Language Institute was contracted by the military to teach languages to military personnel in this place as well as on the west coast at Monterrey; they taught over 50 languages there.  There were three Korean classes to begin that month, and I was assigned to the class of Mr. Cho.  All instructors were native speakers of the language they taught.  Each class contained 10 GIs, where we sat in a straight line in school-like chairs with a desk top in a very small room with our instructor.  Our instruction lasted 7 hours per day, 5 days per week, for 50 weeks.  I can hear the audible groans from the peanut gallery now.

The class was tedious, and we had to do some studying at night to memorize the dialogue for the next day.  We learned to speak, read, and write the language.  There was a great deal of oral work during each day's class, as we were randomly called upon by Mr. Cho to answer his questions in Korean, or to translate what he had said.  We learned about Korean culture, history, food, music, and geography.  We received a pretty good education in all things Korean.  But, the room was small and sterile, you looked at the same nine guys every day, all day, and the educational routine was just that-a monotonous routine.  In short, it was the most boring year I ever spent in my life.

But the alternative was scary and so most, but not all, of us stuck it out.  Every Friday we had an exam on that week's work.  If you failed the test three weeks in a row, you flunked out of language school and you were reassigned.  Reassignment almost certainly meant going to Vietnam.  In fact, when Mr. Cho got totally frustrated with us, which he did often, he would say in his broken English: "You study hard, or you go other place".  And that "other place" in Southeast Asia was a place none of us wanted to go.  So we plodded along, week after boring week, hating the boredom, but hating the idea of what lay ahead if we faltered even more.