It has taken me awhile to write this particular blog post about volunteering at Talk Cafe. I have a love-hate relationship with Talk Cafe and it really comes down to my own insecurities and personalities.Me aside, Talk Cafe is a wonderful opportunity for USFK personnel and English speaking expats to learn more about Korea, practice their Korean and to make local and lasting friends.
What is Talk Cafe?
Talk Cafe is an opportunity for native English speakers to get volunteer hours and chat with local Korean residents. It’s held at the Pyeongtaek International Exchange Foundation in either Songtan or Paengseong-eup near Camp Humphreys. I volunteer at the Paenseong location and my Talk Cafe class has turned into something really neat. But more on that later.
During Talk Cafe, volunteers and local residents of Pyeongtaek chat in English about any kind of topic. The students range from beginner to intermediate and it is a mixed crowd of all ages. We have lots of laughs at odd things Americans do versus Koreans and plenty of discussions on culture and politics. Trump and Hillary are always good for a thirty minute debate.
The appreciation from students and teachers pours out during every class. A few months ago, my husband and I were treated with dinner and a noraebang aka Karaoke. Did you know Koreans LOVE Creep and Jeremy? A few months later, I invited the entire class to my home to eat Gumbo and try different American beers. Sam Adams was the big winner of the night.
Did you know: if you have the cash you can buy a stone bed? It’s a luxury item to have a slab of granite or jade to sleep on in your home, complete with a headboard and pillows!
Did you know: American’s call their significant other by their first names and say other sweet nothings like “Baby” and “Honey” to each other? No first names in Korean marriages and never call your spouse a baby!
If Talk Cafe is so great, then why do you get all sweaty and nervous about it, Sig?
I hate running Talk Cafe by myself. That’s how I started out and my classes were just plain boring. I was so terrible, by the end of the first semester, it was just me and Mister E left. FYI, Mister E is very proud of his American name, he loves waiting for people to hear the punchline. Go ahead, try it. Say his name fast. Did you groan? I know I did.
My problem with Talk Cafe was I couldn’t talk enough. One night, there were 4 people and maybe it was the yellow haze in the air or Mars was hiding behind Venus but everyone was out of it. Not a single person had said a single thing for 15 minutes, they just stared at me. Anyone can get me rolling on a good topic and I can go on for 2-3 minutes without stopping but if the other party doesn’t jump in at some point I come to a standstill and my brain freezes up.
It’s those seconds of silence that gets to me. All eyes stare up at me, expectantly, waiting. It eats at me, my heart palpitates, my palms get sweaty, it’s a bodily function nightmare and I can’t recover. That evening, I had a list of topics to cover ranging from natural disasters to what I ate for dinner the night before and I couldn’t get anyone to say anything! Before I knew it, I was out of topics and I still had an hour and half of class to go. I frantically texted my husband: ‘JASON, SAVE ME! THEY WON’T SAY ANYTHING!’
I go on for another 10 minutes on how living on a peninsula is like a zombie cul-de-sac buffet and boats are the best option for escape when Jason comes to save me with our two boys in their pajamas. Jason sits down at the table and keeps the conversations for over an hour.
The class listens to him intently and jumped at the chance to ask or answer questions while I supplemented with stories of my own. He would come up with topics and get them rolling and I would explain difficult vocabulary/ grammar or nuances of American culture. Jason and I were like the Wonder Twins! Although, that would make me the bucket of water who always needs helps and can’t accomplish anything on her own. That makes me a little sad.
After that, Jason started coming with me to all the Talk Cafes and we have had a blast. We may be enjoying ourselves but eventually we/d need a week off here and there so we came up with a way to help PIEF find more volunteers.
Our Soldiers and Dependents are an important part of Camp Humphreys Relationship with Pyeongtaek.
This was when our Talk Cafe class really bloomed. Jason asked some of his soldiers if they were interested in filling up an otherwise boring Wednesday evening to meet the locals and chat for a few hours. It just so happens, most of the soldiers are Korean linguists and when they started talking in both languages during class, it was like a door opened up.
In Korea, English teachers are not required to know Korean to teach so at Talk Cafe it wasn’t surprising that Jason and myself couldn’t speak enough Korean to help with understanding or to answer difficult questions. When the soldiers started speaking Korean to explain a troublesome topic, all the eyes in the room lit up. Beginner English speakers started talking more with their halting English and they weren’t as shy or embarrassed anymore. Intermediate students told full stories now instead of a few quick sentences to answer a question. From then on, we’ve had soldiers in almost every week and the class loves them! The number of people attending has almost doubled, we can barely fit everyone in the room!
Each time, I am amazed by how much the soldiers enjoy Talk Cafe. Working at Camp Humphreys is no easy task and the stress can build up from heavy workloads and lifestyle restrictions and curfews put a damper on living in such an exciting country. Talk Cafe is an outlet for soldiers to relax and be themselves. The Korean linguists in particular are getting a chance to better understand the people behind the language that they’ve dedicated so many years of their lives to. Textbooks and newspaper articles are poor substitutes for the smiling and laughing faces of the Pyeongtaek residents who see us on Wednesday evenings.
Thanks in particular to Jason Pregartner, Steve Green and Ryan Riebling for rounding up all of our wonderful volunteers.
Monday Morning Talk Cafes are run by dependents and the students are on a level all their own. There is a Monday morning class where everyone speaks almost perfect English and the class my friend Katie teaches has students from all walks of life. She helps residents who are in their freshman year of college, stay at home Mom’s who are bettering themselves through language learning and retired old ladies who will crack a smile and finally laugh with you if you bring up subjects like tattoos and getting naked in bathhouses.
About Talk Cafe, Katie says: “I feel like it it is the first opportunity I had to really get to know Korean people. It is rare that you can build relationships like that as a foreigner, especially around military bases. Even though we live right next to each other, there are cultural walls around us. Talk cafe allows us to build a bridge.”
Interested in Talk Cafe?
Whether you want to volunteer or attend, show up the day of and sign in. There is a small fee for Korean residents. Go to the PIEF Facebook page for the calendar. At the Paengseong near Camp Humphreys, Talk Cafe is on Mondays from 10:00am-12:00pm or 7:00-9:00pm and Wednesdays (That’s my class!) from 7:00-9:00pm.
What is PIEF? Click here to read more.
Talk Cafe Volunteer hours can be logged into VMIS every month and can be worth promotion points. Talk to your unit to learn more.