Jeon Hyong Jun had no plans to learn Vietnamese. It was a “rebound” choice. Today, he thinks fate was playing its hand.
The phone rang suddenly and Jeon Hyong Jun picked it up. “Please help me! I cannot put up with my husband anymore.” It was a cry for help from a Vietnamese woman.
Working as a volunteer interpreter for BBB Korea, a consulting service for foreigners in South Korea, the undergraduate student of Sogang University (Seoul) was familiar with such situations.
He immediately understood that this was a newly wedded Korean-Vietnamese couple having a fight, not the least because of their language barrier.
For the next three hours, Hyong Jun, who goes by his Vietnamese moniker, Tuan Jeon, was both an interpreter and a cultural mediator, explaining and bridging differences between South Korean and Vietnamese cultures. In the end, both wife and husband expressed their appreciation in tears.
“I just wanted to cry listening to their whole story,” he said.
The couple are among 2,000 people who has benefited from the free interpretation service provided by Tuan Jeon over several years.
But Tuan Jeon had not really planned to learn Vietnamese. It was a default incident. In 2011, the young boy failed to enroll in a specialized English class at the Chungnam Foreign Language High School in Asan City because his score was too low. One thing led to another, he had chosen the Vietnamese class just to stay in the school.
Of course, his parents were not happy and could not understand why he chose to learn Vietnamese. His sister was more sympathetic. “Doing something that many people would not dare to is a bold and interesting move,” she said, encouragingly.
His first days seemed to be an endless battle. “What language even has six tones and five diacritics,” he cursed and was ready to give up. But he hung on.
Fast forward two months and he had the chance to welcome some Vietnamese exchange students. He was in awe that they were extremely well-versed in Korean culture and embarrassed that he in fact, only knew Vietnam as a country wrecked by war and in dire property.
“Even though I was learning the language, I had not bothered to dig in, while my fellow Vietnamese friends knew so many good things about my own country.”
Tuan Jeon promised himself that he would become the most fluent Vietnamese speaker among foreigners.
To expand his vocabulary, he bought a dictionary and began learning 10 new words each day. Since college dorms prohibit the use of smartphones, he sneaked in a school computer to connect with thousands of Vietnamese people on Facebook for online chatting. With the help of Vietnamese “social friends”, he made daily progress by constantly repeating the cycle of talking, taking notes and asking his instructor at school.
Tuan Jeon’s teacher at the Chungnam Foreign Language High School, Nguyen Thi Thanh Tam, said she was proud of his perseverance and the prizes he won in Vietnamese writing or speaking contests.
Tuan Jeon also wrote frequently to the Vietnamese embassy in South Korea and to news outlets in Vietnam about his journey with learning the Vietnamese language, aiming to encourage Korean high school students to do the same.
Tuan Jeon (R) and his colleague at the Voice of Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Tuan Jeon.
It was while studying International Communication at the Sogang University that Tuan Jeon became a volunteer for BBB, providing free consultancy and support for Vietnamese expatriates in South Korea.
“Working at a hotline number means that you have to pick up the phone whenever and wherever you are, even when you are in class, walking on streets or eating,” he said.
Since 2014, Jeon has received a total of 2,200 phone calls to resolve daily communication issues in hospitals, police stations, lost and found centers and in homes with family conflicts.
Jeon decided to take his Vietnamese language learning to the immersion level, traveling to Vietnam more than 20 times in the last 10 years.
After finishing his third year in college, he decided to get some real life experience in the country. As soon as he landed in Hanoi, he applied for a Korean speaking reporter’s position with Voice of Vietnam. He not only got the job, but also became a success with his Sunday talk shows. He was endearingly called the “Hanoi boy” by the audience.
He felt very lucky to be in Vietnam. He loved bun dau (noodles with fried tofu), iced tea on the pavement and fell head over heels for Vietnamese flower vendors. He could effortlessly chat with his xe om (motorbike taxi) driver. Sometimes, he was able to fool people into believing he was Vietnamese.
And when he was mistaken to be Vietnamese, he would say: “I am a South Korean, but in my past life, I might have been Vietnamese.”
In September, 2020, Jeon used his savings to found a scholarship of his own with the aim of providing financial and mental support for six underprivileged children in HCMC until they graduate from high school.
“Everything I do comes from the bottom of my heart because I am destined to do it for Vietnam.”
Today, reflecting on his failure in English that put him on a very different path, he says: “I was destined to learn Vietnamese.”
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