I have taught a significant number of foreign students in Korea who have come here for any number of reasons, from participating in formal academic exchange programs to being drawn by a fantasizing obsession with K-pop singers. I have enjoyed many memorable experiences with these visitors to my classes over the years. Recently, however, two particular cases occur to me often.
One was a Russian boy, perhaps twenty-one, a well-built, clean-cut kid with some lingering teenage acne, who took one of my writing classes. His language skills were middling, but he was diligent and prompt in completing his assignments, and frequently asked good questions about his weak points, sincerely trying to improve. Near the end of the semester, he informed me, with visible disappointment, that he would have to cut his exchange studies short and depart a couple of weeks before the end of the course. He had received notice of a military obligation back home. He comes to mind these days, as I think of a fifth of the Russian military being deployed in an insane war of aggression, in which so many thousands of them will die, after having committed atrocities in an unjust war they appear doomed to lose.
The other is a Ukrainian woman who moved to Korea for study and employment many years ago to support a teenage child back home, and subsequently became a graduate student here even while working full-time. She studied both language and philosophy with me, and we just recently got back in touch after years without contact. She is currently preparing to defend her dissertation, while simultaneously preparing to travel home and defend her country, in spite of feeling relatively hopeless about the prospects for ultimate victory. When I spoke to her last week about her travel plans, she informed me that she has had to delay the arrangements for a while, because she has “nowhere to go.” That is to say, her hometown, though in western Ukraine, near Poland, has been under missile attack from positions in Belarus several times. Its airport and several other important facilities have been destroyed.
I hope my Russian student, if he is active military today, becomes one of those heroes — Russia will need many heroes in the coming months and years — who refuse to serve as sacrificial pawns or cannon fodder in Vladimir Putin’s untenable war of attrition against the civilized world. I hope my Ukrainian student is able to assuage her guilt at being absent from her country’s suffering without coming to personal harm, and that she will be fortunate enough to find all of her family alive at the end of this, and to see her hometown rise from the ashes someday.