Seeing the world with his hands


By Justin Kane, reporter for The Columbian, the student-run newspaper of Columbia College

The first thing many people notice about Philip is his cane. He pushes it along the ground, using it to check for bumps, cracks and sudden changes in surface and elevation. To check the time, he lifts the cover from the face of his watch to feel the hands.

The second thing they notice is that he's Korean.

Living in a new country and speaking an unfamiliar language can be tough, but adding a visual impairment makes it a very tall order.

But Hun Yong Kim, a junior majoring in special education, is navigating Columbia College well. He is one of many exchange students from Kongju National University in South Korea. He likes to be called Philip because he says it’s easier for Americans to pronounce. Philip is from Seoul, the capital, where he attended a school for the blind before beginning his studies at Kongju National University. This is not his first time in the United States; he visited the state of Washington in 2006 to take courses. His English was then not good, and he says he found the experience difficult. He had been to Germany and Japan for short trips, but his Washington visit was his first prolonged period outside South Korea.

Philip is currently studying English as a Second or Other Language, better known by the acronym ESOL; English composition, which he says further helps him with the language; and "Working with Groups," which allows him to simultaneously work on his English and better understand American culture and people.

Philip says that it takes him time to get used to a new place. He can’t simply unfold a map to see where he is. He has to feel his way around and memorize landmarks. The Columbia College campus, he says, was fairly easy to get used to. His travel experiences and new friends allowed him to navigate the campus on his own in a fairly short period of time, he says.

The same, but different

Philip attends the same classes as any other student, but his learning materials are decidedly different. He uses electronic textbooks (E-texts), which software on his computer reads aloud. He also reads using an electronic Braille note taker which converts text documents to Braille on a special keyboard that raises and lowers metal dots on a display that he can "read" with his fingers. Philip says that E-texts are a lot handier than lugging around Braille books.

Philip also says accommodations for the blind and visually impaired in the United States are superior to that in South Korea. There, he says he sometimes had to scan textbooks himself page by page into a computer that then converted the scanned pages into a format that could be read by a text reader. He sometimes had to ask classmates to retype entire textbooks.

Almost all his current course materials are E-texts, but he had none his first two weeks and had to play catch-up. According to Ruth Tichenor, coordinator for disability services at Columbia College, disabled students must fill out paperwork to verify their disability and pay the textbook publisher upfront before receiving an E-text. “It was a challenging time,” he says.

The American way of eating, drinking and getting around

When not attending classes, he can be found in his room, furiously reading. In his sparse free time, he enjoys shopping trips and working out in Southwell Gym. He says he has to exercise three to four times a week because of the American way of eating. “I can’t help eating because there’s so much food!” he says, laughing.

And, unlike many college students, Philip doesn’t like going to clubs or bars. “I don’t much enjoy being in a noisy place. I cannot talk to others. I haven’t drunk alcohol since I came here.”

Philip says the hardest thing about life in Columbia has been the lack of easily accessible public transportation. He says that Seoul’s public transportation system is superb. “I can go anywhere I want but here, I have to ask somebody to go with me,” he says. He says he had a hard time asking Americans for help at first. “How do I ask them?” he says. He was afraid of seeming rude. “I’m quite used to it now.” he says. “I like being independent. It doesn’t make me happy to ask a lot.” He admits, however, that he has to ask for help any time he wants to visit someplace new to him.

Philip says he most misses his family and girlfriend in South Korea, then drinking beer with friends in bouts of karaoke. He says South Korean karaoke is different from the brand practiced in Missouri. “We pay about five to ten bucks for one room for about one and a half hour, and we go with five or six friends. We take turns singing a song — real loud!” He adds that karaoke is great stress reliever.

Philip will be returning home after this semester to finish his degree at Kongju National University but says that he may return to the United States. “America is a very big country.” he says. “There are so many places to go and enjoy.”