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(Yonhap Feature) Ethnic Koreans in Russia, Central Asia learn language, culture in ancestral land

2017/09/13 11:07

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By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Sept. 13 (Yonhap) -- On a hot, humid summer day in late August, some 30 Korean-looking people of different ages gathered in an auditorium in Ewha Womans University in Seoul. All were actively involved in the class, busy taking notes and asking questions.

It appeared to be a typical community class in Korea until the break time when they were allowed to speak in their native tongues -- the Russian and Central Asian languages.

The students are ethnic Koreans from five countries in the region invited to join a five-week-long education program on Korean language, culture and history run by the state-run Overseas Koreans Foundation. They are all Korean language teachers in their countries.

This photo provided by the Overseas Koreans Foundation shows Koryoin teachers wearing Korea's traditional costume for a group picture during a five-week-long education program on the Korean language. (Yonhap) This photo provided by the Overseas Koreans Foundation shows Koryoin teachers wearing Korea's traditional costume for a group picture during a five-week-long education program on the Korean language. (Yonhap)

Viacheslav Li from Russia is one of the "Koryoin," referring to Koreans who immigrated some 100 years ago and their descendents.

Born to an ethnic Korean father and a Russian mother, the 22-year-old started to teach Korean at a school in Sakhalin a little over a year ago.

"I am doing my best to keep up with every class here. The tight schedules for the past few weeks have provided me with a great lesson on Korean and how to teach the language to my students back in Russia," he said in an interview held in the fourth week of the program, which kicked off July 26.

He first learned Korean in high school. Like many of his peers, it was Korean pop music and dramas that kindled his passion to learn the language of his grandparents.

"I had thought for a long time about learning Korean since I am a Koryoin. At first I was into Korean culture, but my passion for the language was sparked later on," he said.

Anastassia Kim, 21, came from Ukraine to join the program. This is her first visit to the country, though she had seen Korean movies, dramas and singers for many years.

"It is quite challenging since I have to deal with new vocabularies in lectures consistently," she said. "Still, I think it is very helpful in that I have learned that I can teach my students games and many other diverse fun activities."

   She teaches Korean grammar at a church and studies to enter a graduate school to become an school teacher.

This photo provided by the Overseas Koreans Foundation shows Viacheslav Li (2nd from L) studying along with other classmates during a Korean language class. (Yonhap) This photo provided by the Overseas Koreans Foundation shows Viacheslav Li (2nd from L) studying along with other classmates during a Korean language class. (Yonhap)

The Koryoin is a legacy of the mass immigration of Koreans during the declining years of Korea's Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). They initially moved to Siberia, looking for economic opportunities, but were later forcibly moved to Central Asian states under Joseph Stalin's rule of the Soviet Union in the late 1930s.

Around 500,000 Koryoin are known to be residing there now. Most of them are in Russia, while around 180,000 and 100,000 people living in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, respectively.

The annual program is part of South Korea's efforts to help the offspring of those Koryoin retain their ancestral roots and identity through language education.

It is aimed at supporting Koryoin teachers, in particular, to be better trained and more competitive to teach youngsters in their countries. The foundation has provided the training program since 2000.

The education program consisted of listening, reading and speaking, along with other diverse courses aimed at enhancing their understanding of Korean culture and history.

"The Koryoin teachers are our precious workers tasked with handing down Korean culture and language to our next generations," the foundation's head Ju Chul-ki told participants at the start of the program.

There is a growing demand for such programs amid worries the offspring of the Koryoin might be losing their ethnic origin as they do not understand the culture, history and, among other things, the language of their ancestors.

This photo provided by the Overseas Koreans Foundation shows a group of Koryoin teachers practicing a South Korean traditional instrument as part of efforts to learn Korean culture. (Yonhap) This photo provided by the Overseas Koreans Foundation shows a group of Koryoin teachers practicing a South Korean traditional instrument as part of efforts to learn Korean culture. (Yonhap)

It is true that the high popularity of Korean dramas, movies and pop music have enticed many young Koryoin to the mother country of their grandparents or great grandparents. It is still a challenge to take their interest in culture and expand it to the Korean language.

Against this backdrop, it seems to be of great importance to provide high-quality Korean language teachers in the region, and this is what Li and Kim both want to do.

"Younger Koryoin appear not to have much interest in Korea. They are surely into Korean culture, but the enthusiasm does not seem to be turned into as much interest in the Korean language," Li said.

"I have learned from my parents, 'You should know the language of your mother country.' It is a sad reality, however, that many Korean-Russians have a Russian mindset and seem to have forgotten their mother tongue," he added. "I believe that we will be able to provide some help in resolving the problem."

   Kim is not sure about whether her Korean teaching would do such a grand job, but she is sure about at least one thing, which is that she now loves teaching Korean more than before and has a plan to help others seeking to study Korean back in Ukraine.

"When I started to teach Korean, I actually didn't like it much. I picked up the job since there were not enough teachers," she said "However, learning and teaching Korean has been so fun, and it has made me more interested in the language."

   "Some of my students would love to come to Korea to study. I wish I could help them realize their dreams."

   kokobj@yna.co.kr

(END)

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