The One with the Two Soups

If my first weekend in Seoul was a rollercoaster ride, this last weekend in South Korea was Splash Mountain. The only reason I’m calling it Splash Mountain is solely because my phone took a dive in the Busan ocean, from which it then took a nice long nap immersed in uncooked rice. Fear not, a bag of Buddhist temple rice and 48 hours later and my phone is as good as not new but incredibly functional. I was incredibly scared that after no mishaps since the first week, my last week was going to be the one where I messed everything up.

This was it. The last week has come and gone, and I write this while on the plane for my final connecting flight to the beautiful ATL. Georgia has definitely been on my mind, but so have a few other things.

If you’ve been following my blog, then you already know that I’ve experienced considerable personal growth during this two-month trip. I feel I’ve been able to explore my faith more constructively, find new purpose and passion in my history and culture, and make some incredible new friends and memories along the way.

Before my trip to South Korea, I had “only” ever gone abroad to Europe. Being the Cultural Anthropology major that I am, I always found an enormous amount of similarities between European culture and that of my own Puerto Rican one- or even with US culture. Coming to Korea however, many of those similarities and comparisons were not there. There was nothing familiar about my environment. I had seen a lot of Korean dramas, so I knew what the general culture and behavior was like- and the actual country was exactly like the dramas by the way. But other than the preparedness of my drama-watching, I was not particularly ready to live in an Asian country for eight weeks. Looking back on my experience, I can honestly say that Korea is far from being European or Puerto Rican or Americanized in any way. There may be elements or influences here and there (fashion particularly), but it is completely its own, and that uniqueness is meant to be and easily achievably loved. If given the chance, I would definitely go back and visit Korea again. I feel I’ve learned a lot more about the language, its transportation, its behavioral practices, and its food culture.

Even so, I discovered that no matter how much I loved this unfamiliar Korea my subconscious kept bringing me back to the familiar- to that which I already loved and identified as my own. Let me explain.

Several times throughout my trip, Koreans asked me what my favorite dish I had had in their country was. My answer was always the same: samgyetang (삼계탕). It is a soup/stew made from chicken, rice, and some seasonings. Essentially, you boil a chicken with ginseng, onions, and some other spices to preference and then you add rice once the chicken is cooked and broth is made.

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My group members and our professors were generally surprised that out of everything we ate I said this was my favorite hands-down. Yet, I didn’t find it perplexing at all. I immediately realized- as I tasted it for the first time- why exactly it was my favorite. It was my favorite because as soon as I tasted that first spoonful I pictured my grandmother’s face. My incredibly, warm, and caring grandmother making me a different Puerto Rican dish called asopao. Asopao is a soup which contains rice, chicken and other seasonings including tomato sauce, onions and peppers. You make it by boiling the chicken with the onions and peppers and then you add rice and tomato sauce once the chicken makes broth.

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Asopao is my favorite food of all time. In fact, every time I come home from Duke or abroad or wherever, the first thing I eat is my grandmother’s asopao. I eat that for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 2 days straight. In its own way, samgyetang was my Korean asopao. I couldn’t find anything specifically similar between my culture and Korean culture, but I still found a piece of home in both. It is easy now for me to see how people relate culture to food and can bond over food so easily. That is because even in the most difficult or foreign of circumstances, certain flavors and foods can change your feelings in an instant. Proust eating a madeleine transported him to his childhood. My eating samgyetang transported me to my family.

Essentially, I want to communicate that opening oneself up to different cultures- through music, food, language, or whatever- does not mean diminishing one’s own culture. It does not mean you are immersing yourself in the foreign or exploring the “other” through an outside perspective. Rather, I encourage everyone reading this blog who may be traveling or will travel soon to explore this “other” and make it your own. Find your home inside this uncertainty. Find your samgyetang. It makes your experience a lot more meaningful when you stop comparing the two cultures and decide to just be a part of it without overanalyzing it.

Finally, I wanted to share a list of thoughts I’ve had while traveling back to the homeland.

Things I am excited about returning to America:

  • My family (and by association asopao)
  • The 100% certainty that regardless of what bathroom I go to there will be 0% chance that that toilet will be a squat toilet
  • The fact that I do not at any point in the near future need to consume any seaweed, radish, or kimchi (no offense).
  • 24/7 air conditioning
  • clothes fresh out of the dryer
  • Spanish
  • English
  • CHEESES ALL THE CHEESES
  • Quality Netflix options
  • Avocadoes for days

Things I will miss about Korea:

  • The wonderful people/friends I met there in Seoul and Yeoju (have replaced pics of people with pics of animals I have also met)
  • The subway system
  • The incredibly creative junk food options (see below- a cheeseburger with hashbrowns and mozzarella cheese)

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  • Korean language
  • All things Kpop
  • Bubble tea for days
  • Free wifi basically everywhere in Seoul
  • The feeling of freedom and independence that comes with having to find your way around a foreign country without any internet or phone connectivity and then succeeding

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  • The Seoul Forest

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  • Writing this blog weekly

 

Thank you for taking this journey with me and reading it all. Thank you to my two wonderful professors for being so kind, caring, intelligent, and overall radiant human beings. And also, sorry if some of this doesn’t make any sense because I’ve been traveling for almost 40 hours and jet lag is real.

The One with the POWs and the Christian Refugee

Wow. I don’t even know where to begin.

I guess I’ll start with a statistic- to put things in perspective.

There have been 80 POWs of the Korean War that have returned to South Korea after the Korean War ended. Out of those 80, there are about 40 who are alive. Our program has met two of them. In our two weeks at Mulmangcho, we met and listened to the stories of two prisoners of war and then one Christian North Korean refugee. Each individual provided an incredible narrative with different emphasis on what they felt was important.

The first one we met we heard from last week. Instead of telling us a story of his experience, he allowed for us to ask questions for our entire session. It was a bit hard for us to situate ourselves because we weren’t sure what was and what wasn’t appropriate for us to ask him. Sadly, this first encounter was not the most fruitful because of our lack of direction. Even still, he was able to share a lot about his experiences in the North and his journey back to the South. This interview felt very heavy in my heart and mind. He described in detail all of his physical and emotional struggles. At one point, Cole asked him if he had any good memories from North Korea, and the man responded he had none. I know North Korea is a difficult place and, ethically, a horrible place for someone to live-especially a POW. But, this man had children in North Korea, and he didn’t even consider his children and their existence to be something of a happy memory. He never even mentioned the woman who fathered his children either. I wondered whether he wanted us to think the worst of North Korea, or if he legitimately did not feel his children or his significant other to be cause even for an inkling of happiness.

The other POW we met had a very different approach from the first one we met. Instead of us asking any questions, he dived right into his experiences in the North. This one also described his physical hardships in detail. Everyone was always starving and living in cramped spaces. He also had children while in the North. Unlike the first, this POW emphasized the greatness of South Korea as opposed to the wretchedness of the North. He told us that the life he had here in South Korea was “paradise”. To put it in context, this man lives next door to Mulmangcho school and spends his days farming sweet potatoes. He lives in a completely rural area of South Korea, and he probably sees more sweet potatoes than people on a daily basis. Yet, he calls this simple and secluded lifestyle paradise because that’s how grateful he is to be in this country with the choice and means to live adequately. It was so powerful and moving. I wanted to connect to the simple grateful happiness he had. I’ve been dreaming about a dryer, oven, and AC for weeks, and I realize I should be more grateful to even know what those luxuries are in the first place.

Lastly, we met with a North Korean refugee woman. Her story was incredibly different from the other two and not just because she was not a POW. She was an incredibly talented individual in North Korea, but could not progress in the ranks because her family was Christian. Her story hit me hard. She described how her faith was always something that caused her and her family fear of persecution. One of her in-laws died because he was a pastor. She described how she would use whatever moments she had alone or with just her family to pray. How, when they ate dinner they would lock the door first to pray, and then unlock it before actually consuming food. She described how she would sit on her toilet and pray because that was the only real time she knew she wasn’t being watched by anyone who could report her to the authorities. She told us how, when her mother was on her deathbed, her mother kneeled down and prayed because she wanted her children to remember how important it was for them to continue it once she was gone. During this entire conversation with her, Joon had been translating her story to us. So, once she got up to leave the room, I asked Joon to translate something I wanted to communicate with her before she left. I asked him to communicate to her that I saw she had a beautiful and blessed soul, and I asked him to tell her that I would pray for her and her family’s continued faith and future happiness. He translated. She started crying. She came up to me, and we hugged. After the hug, we looked into each other’s watery eyes, and –in that moment- I felt God. I felt the Holy Spirit the strongest I had in a very long time communicate with me.

Listening to this amazing and powerful woman made me realize something. Remember when I talked about not appreciating the luxuries I had? I forgot the biggest luxury of them all. The ability to freely believe what I wanted and express it publicly. More specifically, the ability to pray and profess my belief and love of God whenever and wherever I wanted. I don’t have to pray while I’m in the bathroom. I don’t have to lock the door of my house or my room to pray. I don’t have to worry that any family member that expresses a belief in God might be in danger of persecution. In fact, I can even write this blog and no one will think the worst of me for writing about my religion. I’ve been so caught up in the things I can physically see are commodities I’m lacking that I can’t even see those rights and needs that I can just take care of even in South Korea. If I had to be so secretive and introspective about my faith, would I still believe in Him? Is my faith so strong that I would risk persecution? Thankfully, I don’t have to answer that in any other sense but hypothetically. I’m not sure I would like the answer.

So, inspired by this marvelous woman’s inspiring story, I want to communicate moments in my time here where I’ve seen and been thankful to God for His presence in my life.

. . .

I’m thankful to Him for every moment I spend in this country.

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I’m thankful for the wonderful, patient individuals who try to communicate with me while I try to navigate the limited, broken Korean I know.

I’m thankful for our two professors who have not been just professionals leading us on this volunteer trip, but also friends, mentors, and comforts when those parents we want and need are not available to us while we are so far away.

I am thankful for the rest of my DESK 16 group for being so patient and understanding with one another as we spend literally every waking moment together.

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I am thankful for the commodity of the iPhone that allows me to contact my family through FaceTime whenever I have wifi without any added cost to any of our pockets.

. . .

I see God here.

I see God in the wonderful front desk attendant at our Guesthouse- Tina- who made us breakfast every day before we went to Jiguchon because we wouldn’t be at the Guesthouse at the time breakfast time actually started.

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I see God in the kids at Jiguchon who tried constantly to understand us not-teachers and our teaching methods while we were there with them, and who loved and welcomed us even when they didn’t understand a single thing.

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I see God in the teachers at Mulmangcho who spend their days surrounded by kids in a rural, countryside house instead of with their families in a more populated and less nature-y part of Korea.

I see God in the kids at Mulmangcho who greet us every morning with smiles, who want to play badminton, basketball, and board games with us even when we can’t understand more than 15% of what they’re saying.

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Finally, I see God in the woman we met with, whose faith was so unwavering that she now spends her time traveling with her church telling others about her journey. Thank you for helping me see how much of the brightness of this journey I had been unable to see until we met with you.

There is one more blog post left, so stay tuned for the ending of the story, and thank you to everyone who has followed me on this journey so far for reading these posts. I see God in you too.

The One with the Boricua Pride

If you know me at all, you know that I’ve liked Korean dramas, Kpop and Korean culture for a good 6 years now. People in high school thought it was a phase, and now they’ve just given up hope that I’ll stop obsessing over EXO or SHINee and accept that I’m a lost cause to American pop culture.

If you know me at all, you also know that I’m Puerto Rican. I’m Boricua and proud. I love my food, my culture, my tiny island and its weather.

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I’m very proud of where I’m from, and if anyone assumes I’m from a different Latin American country, I quickly set them straight. So, it’s natural that at this stage of my experience in Korea I’m missing my Boricua lifestyle. In a phone call with my mother earlier this week, I requested an unlimited supply of avocadoes when I got back. All of Friday, I listened to all the Spanish songs I had in my phone over and over on our bus rides.

Now, every time I go abroad I have a phase where I really crave my own culture’s food and when I really miss speaking and listening to Spanish speakers, but in Korea that feeling is heightened. Every other time I’ve gone abroad, it has been for studying and in a European country. Knowing Spanish, English, and French fluently, I’m pretty set regardless of where in Europe I go.

I speak three languages fluently, and they are all useless in South Korea. Sure, there can be a person who can understand broken English as I order food at a restaurant or ask for directions, but for the most part it’s not a language that can easily navigate you through the country.

Now, don’t worry, this blog is not going to be me complaining about how Koreans aren’t accommodating to my language barrier. This blog is about something else entirely.

I’ve been struggling a lot recently thinking about why I am in South Korea right now. I am here because I applied for this program. I applied for this program because it combines both my love for Korea and its culture as well as working with refugees and children’s education. But couldn’t I also be working with refugees and educating children somewhere in Latin America? In Puerto Rico?

Because 6 out of the 8 student in our group can’t speak Korean proficiently, there are two members who automatically take on a certain role in our group. All of us in the group can go around the subway, order food on our own, and be independent, but for many of the DukeEngage required events, Joon (our only fluent Korean speaker) always has to translate for us. I’m very grateful to him for it, but I’m often frustrated with the fact that I know three languages and I am still useless in these situations. Because I don’t understand a lot of the Korean language, I only get a glimpse as to the personality and tone of the individuals we meet with in our program. I’ve learned extensively about Korean History, North/South Korean relations, and about the Korean education system, but I learn through what Joon and our professors are able to translate to us. Couldn’t I be in a Latin American country learning more about my history, my people, and working to better my own Latinx community? Is what I’m doing here incredibly selfish?

Joon is in his own country learning more deeply about his people while at the same time helping educate others about his country’s struggles, history, and greatness. He often looks at our surroundings and says, “Wow, Korea is so beautiful”, and I envy him because I know that I mirror the love he has for his country with my own. I know that if I was in my own country I would breath in the salt water air, listen to the coquis at night and want to share all that Puerto Rico has to offer with everyone around me. Even if it wasn’t Puerto Rico, I could be somewhere else in Latin America being the one who translate and helps others understand and learn about our rich culture, history and struggles.

I talked to some of my group members about my feelings, and they all tried reassuring me that being part of this program was not selfish and it wasn’t me ignoring my own culture. They all said that learning about other cultures is important so I can better know my own culture. While I appreciate their helpful points, this topic is still something I deeply think about every day. I’m not sure what I want the conclusion of my thoughts and feelings on this will be- or if there will ever be a conclusion, but it is something I wanted to write out and keep on record as I continue to contemplate on it. I’m realizing how ignorant I am of my own people’s trials and tribulations, and I want to delve deeper into that side of my history. I’m just not sure how yet.

Regardless of this internal conflict that has been going on, we are now at Mulmangcho. Mulmangcho is the name of the school we are staying at for the second half of the program. It is in the countryside, and we interact and help North Korean refugee children develop their English speaking skills. There are sixteen kids and they range from age 7 to age 23. During the day, a lot of the elementary and middle school children go to a local camp, so we spend most of the day (us 8 group members) interact and conversing with 6 of the refugees in the camp. The environment at Mulmangcho is incredibly different from that of Jiguchon.

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First of all, we live at the school with the kids. We are in separate buildings, but we see them for all of our meals and all throughout the day. Moreover, we are never in a set classroom setting with the kids. We have 1:1 English conversation time with the older students, but we don’t necessarily have to create strict lesson plans, and since it is only one student that is close to us in age, there is not a distinctive teacher-student relationship. This more light-hearted approach has allowed for us to form bonds with the students that more closely resemble a mentorship or friendship, and this less-restrictive approach has given our group a rejuvenated sense of purpose and energy in bonding and getting to know the students. We have been here only a week, but our group already feels that we’ve formed strong relationships with many of the older, more English-proficient students. Not only that, but all of the students have welcomed us eagerly and have approached even those of us who came with no knowledge of the Korean language. It is truly incredible how trusting, welcoming, and excited all of these students are considering how difficult their childhood has been for them. Coming to this school with no knowledge of what it was for, you would not be able to tell that many of them are in this country without their parents or without their siblings. I wake up every morning and feel strengthened by their courage and enthusiasm. I’m truly so blessed to have met and to spend time with them here.

P.S. I’m gonna take a note from Justin’s blogs and list some other fun/interesting things that have happened this week to lighten the tone of this blog post.

  • They have like 8 chicken and we were able to collect eggs from their coop.
  • There are two dogs that are a couple and on the day we arrived the mom gave birth to six puppies.
  • The chickens like to stand near the dog’s cage and taunt them. The male dog does not appreciate this.
  • On Tuesdays, we are supposed to make some American-esque food for the kids so that they can experience some food other than that typically offered in Korea.
  • We made them fajitas, and they loved it.

The One Filled with Goodbyes

Monday and Tuesday of this week were our last two days at Jiguchon. Even though these two days are technically part of week 5, I wanted to make it part of week 4 and wait to post week 4 so that I could more fully reflect and express my thoughts on my experience at Jiguchon.

Even last Friday I was already mentally preparing myself for the final day at Jiguchon. I was worried that I would cry or that I would be incredibly sad or let down by how our last day went. To be honest, I’m still not sure about how I felt that last day. I woke up mostly excited for the day ahead. Cole and I decided to have a class party instead of spending it teaching English. We watched an episode of Phineas and Ferb and brought snacks for our students. Surprisingly, a good amount of them already knew what Phineas and Ferb was, and- even though the entire episode was in English with no Korean subtitles- they all watched attentively.

Regardless of what we did on the last day, it was bound to be special. As soon as I walked up the stairs of the school that morning, Sophia (one of my arts and craft students; she is in 2nd grade) handed me a pink piece of paper where she had drawn herself and myself. Then, in Korean, she had written how thankful she was to have me as her teacher and that she loved me. Then, one of my class D students, Michael, wrote all of us a letter (in English!!!) thanking us for making a difference in his life. After we had class, we had a small celebration where the music class performed and the games class did the cup song. Afterwards, Joon gave a little speech about how thankful we were to the students and the school and about how much we loved them and loved spending time with them.

 

He cried.

 

Sophia cried.

 

I cried.

 

To end the celebration, all the students created a huge circle and all of us teachers said goodbye to each student individually. It was awkward for the students I had never interacted with, but for my goodbye with the students I did interact with it was exactly what I needed. The most special moment was when I saw one of our more reserved students, Jana. She felt confident in her English skills in class as she was one of two third graders in our class. She would always write one word and say “Teacher, finish!” because she didn’t want to do more work and wanted to play games instead. Even so, she always tried her best in class. So, when I reached her in the circle and found her full on bawling, my heart broke and grew three sizes bigger at the same time. I felt so much love and care coming from her face. I knew for sure we had made an impact on her. I hugged her close to me and told her- in Korean- that I loved her very much and that I would miss her. She looked me in the eyes and nodded. When we made eye contact, her look was one of someone many years older than her. In the moment our eyes met and she nodded affirming what I had said, I knew that she understood how much I truly meant what I was saying. That I was not just saying I loved her because I was leaving but because she truly had changed me in some way I may not be aware of yet. When she nodded, I understood that she felt the same. Five to ten years from now Jana my not remember my name or where I was from or anything other than she had American teachers at an English camp at her school, but I’m confident she will remember how we made her feel. I am confident she will remember how much we loved (and still love) her and how much we believe in her.

I may not have made that much of an impact on all of my students, but they for sure made an impact in mine and Cole’s lives. So, for that, I want to thank them all. Thank you, Michael, Jana, Ryan, Ezra, Eun Hye, Ji Young, Man Sun, Yuri, Henry, Eun Jeong, and Nehemaiah. Also, thank you to all my art students, who I cannot name all because there were more than 30, but especially to those of you who approached me and made an effort to have a personal connection with me. Thank you, Sophia, Eun Young, John, Joseph, Jennifer, Yoon Mi, Yoon Hye and Cha Gam.

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Thank you.

The One about Women’s Rights and KBS Touristing

The second half of this week was spent exploring Seoul’s history and its cultural perspective of its own past and future.

On Wednesday, we went to a demonstration for “comfort women”- aka women who were trafficked as sex slaves during Japanese occupation. This demonstration has happened every Wednesday since 1992. They hold it in front of the Japanese Embassy, and they demand for both the Japanese and Korean governments to give the victims reparations for their extreme suffering. (That description was very simplified.)

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After going to the demonstration, we went to the museum dedicated to these victims of sexual slavery. The museum itself was small in size but had massive amounts of information to make up for it. Even so, the location of it was secluded as is the knowledge of this issue worldwide.

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While going through the museum, I thought about how this issue of trafficking and forced prostitution was not exclusive to the suffering of these East Asian women. I am sure that those issues exist within my own culture, my own people, and all over the world. Yet, why do we not talk about? Why do we let these women live without telling them how much we do value their life and how much we care about their suffering?

It reminded me of the Stanford case. These “comfort women” and those people who have been supporting them in their struggles have been fighting for their cause since 1992 without much luck. Then, on the other side of the pacific, a young woman gets violently sexually assaulted while unconscious, and the judge makes a verdict prioritizing the “feelings” and “effects” it would have on the assailant. Typical. When will this change? Why hasn’t it yet? Why are we so complacent? I ask these questions as I sit comfortably in front of my computer. I ask these questions because I am not ok with the status quo, but… I don’t know where to start moving away from it other than by asking these questions, engaging in conversation about the issue, and living and being as successful a woman as possible.

On Friday, we went to KBS- Korean Broadcasting System- the largest station in the country. There, we talked to a South Korean reporter who had visited North Korea ten times in his lifetime. I won’t talk about the details of our meeting with him, but I will say I found what he had to say very sincere and his passion for his work very evident. He never once critiqued the North or the South, and he said all his work was just about finding the truth and presenting it to the viewers in the most unbiased way possible.

To end on a lighter note, Thursday we went to the main office for Mulmangcho. Mulmangcho is the school we will be working at for the second half of the program. It will be in Yoju- an hour and a half away from Seoul, and apparently, so nature-y that the closest convenience store is twenty minutes away by taxi (yikes). While we were at the office, the organization gave us more information about the kind of work they do, answered our questions about what to expect, and- most important of all!!!- they made a cute little PowerPoint giving us brief introductions of all the students we would be interacting with. I love that they prepared that PowerPoint because, at least to me, it shows how much they care about them as individuals and how they value each of their personalities and goals. I found it to be refreshing and it made me extremely excited to meet the kids this coming week.

Stay tuned to hear cute stories about my adventures in the countryside.

On a less serious note, we visited the News Room of KBS, a Buddhist Temple and Yeouido Park.

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The One about Bullying

This week was a little tougher than last week.

I was fortunate enough to be placed in the calmest classrooms ever compared to all of my other DESK friends. I teach Level D English which is the smallest and oldest class of the school with the most grasp of English, then, after that, I teach Arts & Crafts which- in short- is a small amount of students who all spend their time drawing and doing art projects with some light chatter. My day has very little screaming children or students who are constantly out of their seat. Because of this, I expected my weeks at Jiguchon to fly by without any major kinks or struggles.

That changed on Friday morning. At the beginning of our first period of English class, Cole (my teaching partner) and I decided to play a jeopardy review game with the kids encompassing time/date vocabulary and grammar. I asked one of our students to pick the first question she wanted. She stayed quiet for a few minutes, so I went to her desk, knelt down, and asked her if she was alright. Instead of responding, she burst into tears. I’m not talking about silent droplets falling lightly down her face- I’m talking about full on bawling. In that moment, I felt true heartbreak.

Let me tell you something about this student. On our very first day of observing the school, she came to a few of us and hugged us and interacted with us making us feel welcome without even exchanging any language in the process. She was originally in Level C class but was bumped up to our class when she felt the material that was being taught was too easy for her. She was in our class for less than a week. When she started crying, I quickly spoke to her in broken Korean to follow me outside the classroom where we sat down in a nearby bench. Cole stayed inside with the rest of the class. She kept crying without saying a word so I just softly rubbed her back in small circles as a source of comfort. In those few minutes we were outside, I felt two things. One- extreme sympathy. I had no idea in those moments what my student was struggling with, but all I wanted to do was fix it and have her smile and hug me like she usually did in the mornings. Two- helplessness. This sweet girl was crying and releasing her feelings, but both she and I knew that if she tried to tell me what she was crying about (in English or Korean) neither of us would be able to understand the other enough. All I could really do for her was be there in that moment. With God on our side, the school’s English teacher was passing by the hallway as we sat outside and asked my student what was wrong. Through the English teacher I learned that the tears were caused by some boys in the class bullying her and teasing her for not having as experienced a proficiency as them in the Level D class.

So, there it was. The class that I thought so perfect and unable to make mistakes was causing the problem that I never even thought to worry about while teaching. Bullying. Regardless of where in the world, it is such an ever-present and ever-increasing problem in school. I realized that my idea of successful teaching at the school was measuring how much the students learned academically. I focused on how much attention they paid in class, how many questions they answered correctly, and how much material we covered. What I didn’t focus on was the most important type of education a child needs. Teaching morals and general etiquette on how to behave around and towards others is difficult even without a language barrier, but it is still something so crucial and necessary for all of these children to learn. Language does not have to be the way these children learn how to be members of society- leading by example is such a much better option.

Throughout all my other experiences representing Duke in a different country, I often think about how I presenting my university to the communities I interact with. However, I had never once before thought about how my interactions and actions represent me as a person, represent my upbringing, and my belief in God. I have to show these kids friendly, positive behavior without judgment and without rancor for them to even think about leading a life like that themselves. Sure, it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll actually follow with that, but addressing bullying and treating all of my students with the same amount of love and respect will be an important step in the right direction. I can’t just coast by my experience at Jiguchon assuming that I’ll have easy days because I have older and calmer students, because that’s just not how I should be measuring the success and impact I have at the school. I should measure it by how often one student helps another understand material, or how often one student shares an item with another student so they both learn and succeed. I have changed the lens through which I see my teaching experience at the school, and this lens is much better quality.

 

Below are some fun pictures from this week:

The One about Jiguchon and God’s Light

If you’re expecting another deeply metaphorical post about rollercoasters, I’m sorry to disappoint. There were no loops or drops this week to work through.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

I did go through loops and drops… at Lotte World. If you don’t know what that is, I really recommend you look it up because any picture I post from what I took with my weak iPhone 5 camera will not do it justice. Basically, it’s an indoor amusement park. Think of it as a huge department store, but instead of it being divided into Calvin Klein, DKNY, and the rest, it’s divided into different rides, haunted houses, and games. There are somewhere around 5 floors of this glorious experience, and I got to go in for a discount because I’m a foreigner and I had a coupon. It was an incredibly fun bonding experience- not to mention I hadn’t gone to an amusement park in 5 years. That’s it for rollercoasters though…

Instead of a rollercoaster, this week was just a very uplifting experience. We started the week by going to Jiguchon and observing the classrooms for 2 days. Jiguchon is the school the eight of us will be teaching at for three weeks. We spend the first half of the day teaching English (two of us in each classroom with 4 classrooms total- each classroom at a different level based on the students’ fluency). Cole and I teach level 4 English. That is to say, he and I spend our time with most of the older students who have a greater proficiency level. The second half of the day we spend doing extracurriculars with the students. Leigh and I do Arts & Crafts. Jiguchon itself is a missionary elementary school where underprivileged immigrant students come to get an education. There are some students from China, Myanmar, Philippines and even England. Many of the students are at the school not just because of their financial disadvantage but also because their different background causes them to be bullied and rejected at regular Korean schools. What’s even sadder is that most of the teachers at this school stay for less than a year. The vice-principal has only been a teacher there for a month and became vice-principal only this week. Our site coordinator and their regular English teacher has only been there three months. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not blaming or critiquing the teachers. It’s very very hard work. Teachers are some of the most inspirational, patient, and kind people on the planet. I would know- my mom is one of them- but these children are experiencing very little consistency in their lives and that is bound to affect them.

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Remember when I said that this week was very uplifting? Well, get ready cause here it comes.

Warning: it involves a lot of religious introspection

Like I said before, Monday and Tuesday were spent solely observing the classrooms. It was on Wednesday that we came in and met our students for the first time. That Wednesday morning, I woke up to a message from my close friend Luke. He sent me a link to an article and told me, “I think this will be a great read for you as you reflect on making meaning of your time in Korea”. If you know anything about Luke, then you know that he is one of the most introspective and analytical people you’ll ever meet. So, I downloaded the article and read it on my 50min subway ride to our school. After reading it, I wasn’t extremely surprised and my head wasn’t reeling with new thoughts about my service experience, but I did continue to think about it for the rest of the week.

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First Day of Work

The article basically said that service should not be doing things for others but rather with others. This wasn’t a big revelation to me. Before coming to Korea, I remember reflecting and making my goal listening and spending time with all the students we encountered rather than trying to change their lives. Like the article says, I don’t really know what these students really truly need spiritually or academically. I shouldn’t try and find a “solution” for a problem I may not necessarily understand. I can’t provide what I don’t have or what I don’t know, but I can spend time with them, get to know them, and make sure they feel valuable.

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Some beautiful student artwork from Arts & Crafts

It’s weird going into DukeEngage and thinking about what I’m doing as strictly “service”. Sure, for university purposes, I’m volunteering for x amount of hours using Duke University’s name and money. It’s supposed to be an experience completely separate from religion. It’s secular because its accessible to everyone at Duke. But for me, it isn’t “volunteering”. I can’t just choose what I do and don’t do in God’s name. There is no on/off switch for what I do in God’s name because ideally I should do all things through Him and with Him in mind. So, while I’m working under the name Duke University, I’m also working under a greater influence- the one of the Lord. I think that’s what I really took from the article. Sure, we should do things with people, but I want to add on to that. I think we should do things with God and with people. I know he probably meant both, but I feel it is necessary to clearly lay it out. The two are not mutually exclusive and I can’t do any kind of service work without both God and His people in mind.

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Myeongdong Cathedral

Now after half a week of seeing things with this mentality, I can safely say I’ve had a truly amazing week. I see different gifts in each of my students, and some of them show me God’s light so brightly that I can’t stop talking to them to anyone who will hear me out. Most of my students are pre-teens (everyone’s favorite age, am I right?), and instead of being awkward or angsty I just see compassion and ambition. Sure, the school isn’t perfect. Bullying still happens even at this school, but overall I see an incredibly strong community with some serious untapped potential. I’m just happy I could be a part of the work that the school is doing, and that I am fortunate enough to have been led to teach and spend time with these students.

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As a side note, my stomach is fine now and I’ve been able to adventure fully into the outside world again after becoming a hermit. I also really recommend the new X-Men movie, and dog cafes are pretty awesome.

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with my new friend at the dog cafe

In case it doesn’t work, here is the link to the article. http://thecresset.org/2013/Easter/Wells_E2013.html