Thursday, May 24, 2012

Volunteering Cures

Job hunting.  It’s a term that leaves many people gulping, shivering, and convulsing.  These days, job hunting is merely like hunting down a killer whale with a Mattel-made bebe gun. 

For many job-seekers, it involves spending a good portion of your day sifting through job postings, tweaking your resume and cover letters, researching the company, filling out the never-ending job applications.  These applications generally force you to repeat what you wrote on your resume, and go back to your old contacts book for references and address of your previous working places.  The saying always goes, finding a job is like being at a job. 

With every generic response of “Thank you for your application to ___________Company.  We will be reviewing your resume, and if your resume matches, we will get in contact with you shortly,” you spend hours, days, weeks, and then months not hearing any responses, or getting another generic rejection email.

Unfortunately, as the employment drought becomes harder to ignore, many HR and employers begin to take notice, and it can ultimately lead your resume to be filed away into the unknown cyber world of HR sites.  Despite the economic downtown the last several years, how do you avoid resume droughts/gaps?  Other than working at a Starbucks or a retail position, how do you ultimately convince employers that your current experiences are still relevant to them? 

One outlet that others are turning to is volunteering.  The quick downside to volunteering is that all of them are unpaid, and require some time commitments and travel.  However, the rewards of volunteering can be substantial especially to job seekers looking into the non-profit sector. 

As internships are extremely competitive and require you to be in school, volunteering comes with no such prerequisites.  It offers you a chance to showcase your skills and abilities.  It gives you the chance to network with the organization, its sponsors or with other organizations that they’re connected to.  Volunteering keeps you productive in a time where you are spending countless hours job-hunting, and more importantly, it is an experience worth having on a resume, and it shows to your prospective employers that you are staying productive while sacrificing your time for an important cause(s).

The benefits of volunteering bring you closer to the community that you’re working in.  Unlike the corporate world, there is a greater sense of accomplishment when you are part of an organization that helps those in need.  You meet volunteers from various backgrounds.  They, too, can become part of your network.   Though many organizations don’t have enough funding to pay its volunteers, they do make a great effort at rewarding them.  Other organizations have been known to throw dinner or lunch parties, or give gifts to volunteers, but most importantly, they can also provide an important reference contact as you are job-hunting. 

Organizations ranging from youth outreach, community organizing, promoting awareness for Breast Cancer, AIDS, cancer, and other health issues, and civil service projects are just one of the many areas in the non-profit sector that people can get involved in. 

Places to look for volunteering and networking opportunities can simply visit places such as,,, or join non-profit groups through LinkedIn. 

As things are uncomfortably tight and competitive in today’s market, the opportunity to volunteer provides the convenience and comfort of building your personal and professional skills as you are going through the days of a never-ending job search. 

In the end, prospective employers want to know what you are doing during your job search, and how productive you are during your challenging moments.  For volunteering, it could mean a few hours out of your time making opportunities happen rather than being confined to your computer.  

Copyright © Randy Kim
All rights reserved

Friday, May 11, 2012

Confessions on Mother's Day

This Mother’s Day is a special one for me.  This one will stand far apart from my previous ones.  Thelast 3 years, I had been out of the country.  Prior to that, aside from a few bouquets of roses and flowers, I had never made that holiday as memorable and meaningful for my mother. 

I hardly ever talk about my family, let alone my own mother to anyone.  It wasn’t because I was ashamed of my mother.  I loved my mother as any son can, but it brought a vulnerable side about me that I was uneasy to share with others, including my own mom. 

In my family, I am considered the sensitive one.   I am the creative, emotionally expressive thinker and writer that many of my friends and family see me as.  For an Asian male, it wasn’t necessarily looked at with the highest of regards.  To my family, it was a sign of weakness.  The thinking was that men were to be emotionally thick-skinned, and indifferent in times of despair.  It was that kind of attitude that made me become, at times, emotionally distant from my mom and my loved ones. 

It was often easy to show my sensitivity towards my close friends, and with the volunteering work I have done in the past, but I could never allow myself to be close with my mom as I became older.  The first few Mother’s Day that I remembered were when I used to bring Marigold flowers home from school.  My mom, not a fan of the Marigolds, reluctantly planted it with her other cherished flowers.  I became uneasy about the following Mother’s Day and afterwards.  I felt as though she could never see my appreciation for her, and I had already given up before I became a careless teenager. 

My mother, for years, always seemed to have that aching void in her heart.  She yearned to have that love reciprocated, and expected that from me.   However, my years of repressing my sensitivity wouldn’t allow me to give her that much-needed warmth. 

I never truly made my mom feel appreciated.  Her family escaped a life of hardship and terror from Vietnam.  She worked at her job for 30 years endlessly.  There were weeks when she was working everyday for nearly 80 hours a week.  When my brothers and I were in elementary school, she would get up at 7 am just to have us ready, but the truth is, she would always come home at 2 or 3 am the night before. 

When I was going to the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), her company gave me a full-ride scholarship, but it came at my mom’s expense with her hard labor and pay cut she had to sacrifice in order to make the scholarship happen.  Without it, I would be slaving away, paying my student loans, and struggling to make ends meet.  My mom’s sacrifice allowed me to have a safety net.  It allowed me to live my life much more freely, and take risks that I otherwise wouldn’t have taken.  

Living in Korea for 3 years was the happiest time of my life.  I became independent for the first time.  I took on challenges that were personally meaningful to me, and I was able to, for the first time, understand my family’s sacrifices for me.  However, those 3 years weren’t easy on my mother.  My brothers eventually moved away last year, and that made it even more difficult for her. 

Yes, we are all grownups, but to her, it was still 1986.    I would often tell my mom that things are going to be okay.  I was going to come back home after my 3rd year.  In some ways, at least having me home gave her some solace.

Two days before I left Korea, I called my mom.  I wasn’t in the best of moods.  I was feeling overwhelmed with moving out of my apartment, lugging my baggage around at my friend’s place, making expensive trips to the post office, and saying goodbye to everyone.  For weeks, I felt a lot of anxiety living back home.  I was going to temporarily surrender my independence living at home, and that was not going to be an easy transition for me.  I dreaded it, even as my mom seemed happy about me going back home.  As I got off the phone, I told her I love her and that I was going to see her at the airport. 

Two days later, she suffered a major stroke.  I was already on my way home, and had an overnight stay in Hong Kong when it happened.  I woke up and opened up my MacBook to find out from my brothers that she was in critical condition.  I was emotionally shaken to the core as I hastily made my way to the airport trying to reach my family.  Being on the airplane for 15 hours was unnerving, but it gave me time to review my relationship with my mom. 

There were many painful moments.  There were missed opportunities.  A simple of more “I love you’s”, at least in my mind, could have made my mom’s life a little easier. 

As I arrived at the airport, I hurried to see my mom at the hospital in the intensive care unit.  To see my own mom in pain and with tubes and IVs around her was unbearable, but the second she saw me, she was crying uncontrollably and felt guilty for for being sick on my arrival.  I kissed her on the forehead and whispered,“I’m home.  I’m not going anywhere.”    I lied….I left after 2 minutes because I was going to cry, and I still had the fear of her seeing me get emotional. 

As the days went on, I had many sleepless nights.  I would look in the refrigerator to see the food that my mom made for me.  I would look at the package that I mailed home from Korea that my mom said had already arrived.  I would look at her empty room.  Our house suddenly became lifeless.  It was a sad, sad reminder of what my life would be like without my mom, and not having the opportunity to tell her how much I love her. 

One day, I was with my mom’s best friend and went to the hospital.  My mom, as she was lying in bed, greeted me.  I sat next to her, placed my hand on her hand, and told her everything I felt was in my heart.  I was telling her how thankful I was for everything she had done for me, how sorry I am for not being a better son, and how I can’t imagine not having her around when she still hasn’t seen what her future grandkids would look like.  For the first time, I started to cry in front of her.  I can honestly say that there was no shame or guilt for feeling emotional in her presence.  It was a relief to finally be able to make her hear what she was yearning for. For once, she was able to see my more personal side that I could never show for years.  

This Mother’s Day is not just an important reminder that my mother is still alive, but it’s an opportunity to remind myself everyday why she is important to my life and to the lives of those that she touched.  More importantly, she will continue to hear how much I love her, and I am incredibly thankful to this day that I can say that to her.  

Copyright © Randy Kim
All rights reserved

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sleepless in Korea

Walking into a classroom every morning, I see the majority of my students with their heads down, a few coffee mugs present, a Red Bull or two.  Other students tenaciously look over their exam notes as they anticipate their dreadful exams in less than a week.  This took me back to the old yesteryears of college; however, it was not; this was middle school. 

The night before, I was jogging along at about 11pm in my neighborhood where I can hear the sudden shouting of “TEACHER RANDY---HELLO!!!!!!” permeating through the tight airspace between my eardrums and my iPod earphones playing to the sound of Muse’s “Time is Running Out.”  I turned around and saw my students still in their school uniform coming out of their private academy.  Puzzled, I glanced at the clock on my iPod, and I thought to myself, “is there a curfew for these kids?” To my kids, it was second nature.  To me, it was “Welcome to Korea.” 

I had taught English in Korea through EPIK (English Program in Korea) for 3 years (From 2009 up until the end of February of this year).  Entering Korea, I knew little about the culture and the education that would stand far apart from its Western counterpart.  As I would soon realize, I quickly began to see the effects that the Korean education system would have on these young minds. 

One day, I had an introductory lesson on “Your Plans.”  I asked my students “What are your plans for the weekend?”  Several students replied, “I have to go to school on Saturday or I have to go to my academy on Saturday,” or “I have to study all day on Sunday.”  Perplexed, I asked them “Well, do you have any hobbies?”  They simply replied, “Oh, we play computer games all day or go to the PC Room with our friends.” Certainly, not the kind of enthusiastic, ice-breaking discussion I had hoped for.  Simply, it was becoming rather evident that my students barely had any time nor the ability to be just kids. 

For centuries, Korea is a culture influenced by Confucianism. This brand of cultural philosophy emphasizes the importance of a person or family’s status in their society based on wealth, social, and job position. Education is the symbol of achieving higher status in Korean society.  It is the key that many Koreans feel would unlock the gates that would lead them to fulfilling dreams of being at the top of the mountain.  Only that getting to the top is where many students start to fall when the climbing becomes unbearable. 

According to a 2011 article in Time Magazine, “In 2010, 74% of all students engaged in some kind of private after-school instruction.”  The private after-schools are known as “hagwons.”  The article also states that these hagwons cost at “an average of $2,600 per student for the year.”  Besides the rising tuition cost, there are more private school teachers than there are public schoolteachers across the country. 

The ever-increasing influence of the hagwons has significantly decreased the influence of public schools.  I asked one of my fellow Korean co-teachers about this issue, and she simply sighed and said, “Randy, even though many parents see teachers as an important, respectful part of our society, they don’t completely trust us teaching their kids because having a hagwon means that they can continue to study more, and they have more chances to learn something.” 

As Korean parents are pulling out every penny to support their children’s education, their kids are absorbing the pressure to academically achieve to near-perfect success.  As Korean universities are becoming ultra competitive, students are competing for academic success as early as elementary school. 

It’s simply not just university entrance exams that students have felt pressure from, but there is also a high school entrance exam which can then influence the fate of what university a student can enter into. 

At my middle school, there is such a great contrast from the 1st year students to the 3rd years.  The 1st years enter middle school with their innocence, childish humor still intact but for the 3rd years, the puberty hits, the studying begins, the expectations grow, the smiling stops, and so does their childhood. 

A typical day of a middle schooler goes much like this: They get to school around 8 am, and finish the day after 3 pm with the exception of a selected weekday where they stay an extra hour.  Generally after dinner, they go to their hagwons and coming home as late as 11 pm.  They also go to their public school every other Saturday morning, and spend a good part of either their morning or afternoon at a hagwon, and in some cases, on a Sunday. 

The life of a high school student, however, intensifies.  They generally arrive at school at 7 am and study into the midnight hours nearly on an everyday basis.  It’s the kind of lifestyle that has worried me as a teacher in my 3 years at my middle school. 

Oftentimes, I would joke around with my other teaching colleagues that our students lead a much more difficult schedule than we do.  As teachers, we get to have vacation days and take time for ourselves, while my students are confined to the books, pencils, desk, and desk lamp during their vacation period. 

During cleaning time at the end of the day, I ran into one of my favorite students, Hyun-Seung.  He sat in his chair, face down, and rather oblivious to the frantic cleaning that his classmates were doing.  I came up to him, poked his back, and asked if he was alright. He slowly raised his head up and said, “No, I’m not okay.”

He then went on to tell me how his father kept pushing him to study.  I asked him, “Well, what time do you sleep every night?”  He answered, “Maybe 1 or 2 am.”  I looked at the sad, concerning look over his face.  I felt helpless as I couldn’t rescue him from the hours of anxiety and studying he had been putting in.  All I could do was listen and be as supportive as I could.

Another student of mine came to me and looked dejected.  He talked about how stressed out he was about his exams for the high school entrance test, and how he had sought out the school counselor for advice and emotional support.  Instead, the counselor focused on his eating habits and reducing his already thin social life. 

Much to my student’s disappointment, it didn’t address the concerns and anxiety he was already having.  He needed someone to listen and understand his problems.  As a teacher, I did my best to at least provide some sort of outlet that he could go to without feeling judged. It is the lack of sensitivity towards students’ emotional needs that became more alarming than my students’ studying habits. 

My former student visited our school one day.  He quickly spotted me, and was quite happy to see me.  I talked with him for a little while.  I asked him about high school and whether or not he found a girlfriend.  I enjoyed having him as my student as he was energetic and humorous, and told him I missed having him in my class. 

He mentioned to me how he missed me as well as his old middle school days.  He was unhappy with high school, his grades were low, and he was looking to transfer to a different one.  I told him to keep his head up, and that I will continue to support him.  It was the last time I would ever see him.  A couple of months later, he committed suicide.

Hearing the news, I was in such disbelief.  I couldn’t imagine any of my students taking their own life away especially when they haven’t seen what they could really do out in the real world.  However, the real world that my student had been living in felt hopeless, and that his concerns over his high school gave him no real prospect of success in college or beyond.  The expectations became too much, and the only outlet he had was to check himself off the planet. 

It’s a moment that still haunts me to this day.  It was a moment that threatened to erase my 3 years of happiness as a teacher in Korea.  I became angry at the way many Korean students are not being emotionally supported by their school, their families, and their society. 

Many Korean teachers and school counselors aren’t taught or given the resources to help students cope with their anxieties, or take pressure off of their studying.  Instead, they are faced with the pressure of making sure their students are preparing for their daily exams and from parents who want to ensure that their child has the best shot at attending a good university. 

Sadly, Korea and Japan are ranked in the top when it comes to suicides.  Facing embarrassment, judgment, and disappointment in front of their peers and family causes them to lose face.  With the lack of available resources to help those coping with anxiety and depression, there are many Koreans that turn to alcohol and smoking to numb their pain, but for others, some have chosen to end their life.

Every child desires to earn approval and acceptance from their family and society, but when they are made to feel that they haven’t earned anything, it’s a burden that they are carrying into their academic performance, but ultimately, into their personal life. 

Ironically, if it wasn’t for the country’s willingness to spend more money on education, my expat colleagues and I wouldn’t have been able to work in Korea.

So in my 3 years, I made it an effort to at least give my students a piece of their childhood back through my lesson plans, and to make myself accessible to students at school.  It was an attempt to give them a different side of teaching that they weren’t accustomed to.  It was through those experiences that many of my students, even to this day, are able to open up and trust me more than their other teachers.  They are able to smile, be creative, and act silly without restraint.

If only the schools, parents, and ultimately Korean society are able to show better emotional support rather than a hint of ridicule, I can only imagine that there would be more Korean students having reasons to smile AND sleep. 

Copyright © Randy Kim
All rights reserved

Friday, January 20, 2012

For my winter camp classes, I made a video activity with my students.  They made the concept, script, and the acting, while I did the camera work and video editing.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

1st year Students

Tuesday, December 20, 2011