To be honest, I don't think I was really ready to say goodbye to Korea. I enjoyed my time there, immensely. I already know I am going to go back some day. Whether it is for leisure or for work, I will be making my inevitable return to South Korea. Korea taught me just how vastly different two cultures can be from one another, but also how connected we are as people despite and because of these differences. I found it immensely satisfying and fascinating to overcome cultural barriers and connect with people who did not grow up like me, do not speak my language, and perceive me in ways I do not usually perceive myself. Although I worry this might be a cliche, there is something very humbling about being a visitor to another country. It is a type of humility and awareness that is hard to put a finger on. Whatever this feeling was, I think that it is my greatest take away from my interim in South Korea. I felt smaller. I felt like my life, wants, wishes, and future were smaller things. Even if sometimes I felt like I was traveling in this great big world and I am a tall, boisterous American with big dreams, goals, and plans; I often felt as if these things did not really matter. And I mean that in a good way, my problems and my pride were diminished by being a clueless and eager foreigner. In one of our discussions I touched on this topic: that traveling not only puts stamps in our passports and pinpoints on our the physical locations we have been, but it also separates the timeline of our lives into more concrete beginnings and endings. When you leave somewhere, go somewhere new and then return to your original location, you can finally see where something began and another thing ended. Going out into the world gives you the opportunity to step outside yourself. Outside your confined reality and expand it to look at it differently, in a new light, in a way you may not have considered if you had stayed put and stared at the same thing day in and day out. It is all about perspective.
Not only because I’ve been working with professors for this interim, but also because I normally spend many hours freely talking to them about life, I always considered them as my good friends. Visiting Seoul National University and Handong University allowed me to see some of relationships between Korean students and their professors. And, surprisingly, it was very hierarchical in Korean universities. Professors in Korea were in much respected position and weren’t easily approachable by students. I think this may vary depending on the professors’ background as well, but specially those who come from traditional Korean education background, they seemed to divide themselves clearly from the students and sometimes could become very strict on them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that American students are being less respectful to their professors. But, definitely I think Calvin College lets students to build close relationships with the professors. First of all, they all have open minds to welcome their students whenever they are in need. Secondly, Calvin professors think beyond their limit and keep themselves updated with what students think of the world. Thirdly, they are very wise to combine their own standards with our views to come up with the most efficient advice. I truly appreciate this kind of relationship more than the hierarchical relations that many Korean students face.
Throughout this interim, we’ve gone to churches in different sizes. From a small town church where all congregation eat lunch together to a church that holds seven different services counting over a million of congregation—they were different but the similar in terms of worshipping the same God and having the serving heart for others. Size of the churches did not matter. All churches had their own ministries throughout South Korea and the world. Churches are working hard to approach to outside church people and always week for ways to help others around. Studying a little of history of Korea, it hasn’t been that long since the Korea War ended. It’s quite amusing to see how this country was able to developed in such a short period of time. And, I strongly believe that it’s also part of God’s work. I think the hard work ethics all came from American missionaries from 1860’s who left strong motivation to Koreans to fight through poverty. With the missionaries’ help, Koreans were able to accept the Christianity and build stronger standards in their lives, and eventually was able to bring together the small pieces that got shattered through war devastation.
I would pick Busan City as my favorite place. The city definitely was less crowded than Seoul and more lively than Pohang. I loved how it was the ocean city with many trade businesses which kept the city very busy as well. Compared to Seoul, Busan seemed to be more relaxed in many ways. People seemed to be enjoying more of their lives. Old ladies from public markets to salesmen from Lotte Malls, everyone worked with much brighter attitude and positiveness. The city itself was also less populated than the capital which reduced the traffic and pollution which could have directly affected the living conditions of Busan citizens as well. I just loved the ocean view and long bridges crossing the ocean that connect small towns in between so much. I think the combination of the city life and the taste of nature was a perfect mix that could give enough motivation for me to work hard.
It’s a bitter sweet feeling! I miss the usual routine but not the reality of going back to school. I described my time in South Korea as a “fantasy”; it being a fun experience which was temporal. Looking back to when we first got to Seoul and when it was time to leave; I must say over the course of 20 days I fell in love with South Korea. It definitely takes a while to get used to foods from other cultures; some of which I describe as acquired tastes. Take kimchi for example, I had never tasted kimchi till I had the experience of making it, but I enjoyed it. My favorite part of the trip was exploring the cities on our own. It was fascinating whenever I had to communicate with the local people because I was amazed at how I came up with creative ways of communicating with them. Consequently, I felt I was interacting with the culture and understanding their lifestyle. We all have different perceptions of Koreans and it was interesting to hear what others thought of Korea during our group reflection time. I learned that culture is subject to misunderstanding which breeds stereotypes and I believe there must be a reason for every act and that’s what makes us unique.
Among the cities we visited, Busan was my favorite. At first, I thought Seoul was, but after I visited Busan, I concluded Seoul is nothing compared to Busan. I immediately fell in love with the state of the art buildings in Busan, the beautiful bridges and the breath taking view from my hotel room at night. I definitely felt Busan is somewhere I can live because the weather was just right, and the streets were less crowded, compared to Seoul. We took the city bus tour around Busan which was an eye opening moment for me; seeing the UN War memorial and how the US was influential in the Korean War was quite amazing. The tours made me wonder how Korea recovered from being the poorest Asian country to being one of the top ten richest countries in the world. I found that its culture and history have been the driving force behind its modernization and economic development. Its people share a common value which is translated in the way the country is run. With persistence and determination being its two key values, Korea has developed major companies with humble beginnings and stories that inspire other nations and individuals, including myself.
On Saturday, we started off the day by making some kimchi. I've never made any before, so I was super excited going into this class. The class was very well prepared, and we learned from the techniques of a kimchi "grand master". Pretty grand title, I must say. We used cabbage, and many different spices. Honey was one of the ingredients, which I thought was interesting. Anyways, we packed our kimchi and I was able to take it back. I didn't end up packing any of it, but I tried my kimchi when we got back to the guest house, and I thoroughly enjoyed the taste. After kimchi making class, some students were allowed to go to Dongdaemun, and many went to the war museum. I ended up going to souvenir shop. I stopped by a shop called Honey. It was near one of the Hongdae Exits that we've passed by several times. I found it humorous that I had trouble looking for Korean souvenirs because most souvenirs were about New York or Paris. I ended up buying a ton of small gifts for my friends back home - the gifts included mango soap, a tea infuser, and lazy glasses. I know, not Korean at all, but it'll do for now.
During our stay in Pohang, we visited a model home. These model homes are depictions of what the inside of the tall buildings that tower over Korea. Going into these model apartments gave me a good view of how most Koreans live today and how they utilize a small amount of space to make it a home. In America, there is a lot of land so many houses can be built wide or tall but the ordinary American home has a yard and is built for a family to have different bedrooms and other rooms. In Korea, it was the same inside but more compact and less spread out. It was innovative in that the kitchen had technology built into it and the rooms were very cool but I felt that it would be more like staying in a very expensive hotel rather than a home. Personally I don't think I would want to have a family and come home to that apartment every night when I know the options in America are much bigger than the house options in Korea. It seems that according to these apartments, many Korean households only have 1 or 2 kids. This is very interesting because like China I think Korea would like to keep the number of kids to 1 or 2 not for population control but for efficiency and living is easier with less. When I would have a conversation with other people in Korea and they asked about siblings and I said there was 4 of us, they would all gasp and say wow! How did your parents do that? So I know it is a shock to many Koreans who live in more city and urban areas of Korea.
We went to a place in Pohang that modeled what the 1970's and 80's looked like in Korea. Although it was a short walk through, I was able to see at a glance what it was like for my parents to live in South Korea at the time. They left to the States in '92. Seeing an old model then showing my parents and asking them if it's true was an experience I remember very well because I don't get to visually appreciate how my parents grew up and what kinds of activities were available for them. It was very fun touring this area and walking through different scenes of Korea during that time. Not only do I feel like I learned more about Korea by seeing an example of that time but also being able to relate it to my parents and talking with them allowed a window for our relationship where they can interject and tell me stories of their past time living in Korea. It is now made easier through holding up pictures and them pointing at them and telling me what kinds of videos they watched even to the kinds of candy they made after school with their friends.
What was your favorite place and why? I think that my favorite city on the trip to South Korea was Seoul. I really enjoyed Seoul because I thought there was so much going on right near us, with a mixture of small shops and big retail stores all very easy to get to. What I also appreciated about Seoul was the different districts and how they all seemed to be their own little cities. For example, we stayed in Hongdae which was a major road with tons of buildings on both sides of it with webs of alleys off of the main road. There is also Gangnam which was had the more expensive shops for high end fashion. Then there is Itaewon which is more for the foreigners and most things are in English. In Itaewon you can get a lot of pizza and burgers if you need a day off from Korean cuisine, and we ran in to many Americans here. This is just a small sample of the different regions in Seoul. We only got to see a fraction of the entire city, but we still saw so much. Seoul seems to have everything and it is also has a very clean and efficient subway to get to all of these spots. I also liked Seoul because I was able to visit my brother and see the school he is teaching at, Seoul Foreign School. The teachers did an awesome job of giving us free time in Seoul and I am very grateful that they made time so that I could see my brother as much as possible. When I return to Korea I will definitely start in Seoul again!
One of my favorite reasons to travel is experiencing foreign cuisine. I really enjoyed dining in Korea. Meals are an event with an opportunity for relaxation and fellowship--a welcome pause to restore both body and mind. Most meals were served with meat which was rich and tender. Along the coast I got to enjoy some very fresh seafood which included raw fish and still wriggling octopus tentacles. Most of the dishes I ate were spicy soups or moderately seasoned stir-fries of fresh vegetables and meat. Every meal came with rice and about a dozen side dishes each in their own separate bowl. A feast for the senses with bowl after bowl of different colors, textures and tastes! But if I had to summarize Korean cuisine, it would be kimchi. No matter what the meal, kimchi was served in a small side dish; I even had kimchi for breakfast some mornings. Seeing the value of kimchi in Korea, I’m glad our group got to experience making it. The kimchi I made managed to get through customs so I will be able to enjoy it for another month, and my roommates will get to enjoy the smell for probably the rest of the semester. The people, the experiences, the meals...Korea provided me with plenty of food for thought. “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” Psalm 34:8. And He is.
Aside from their food and their kindness, Koreans seem to be known for their respect of elders—not just those in the aging population, but anyone who is older by even a day. Whether it entails giving up a seat on the subway or using a more formal version of “sorry,” the junior is expected to honor and respect the senior at all times and in every situation. This is apparently an ever-present mindset, one very different from the mindset of American youth and one that has been growing on me in the last three weeks. When riding the subway, seated elders would often enthusiastically gesture for me to take an open seat. I accepted rather reluctantly, my “strong and independent” American mindset fighting to keep me standing and to prove that I was perfectly okay. Although I was truly fine with hanging on to a handle or leaning against a pole, sitting in the offered seat was a way to both accept gracious hospitality and respect my elders. And not only this, but the vantage point of the seat allowed me a greater awareness of those around me, of my elders and hosts who might need to rest their legs. It’s humbling to assume your position as the junior. Another way to show respect in Korea is to bow slightly, whether it be in the presence of an elder or as part of a greeting or parting. Upon entering or exiting businesses, museums, or convenience stores, we learned to speak the greeting/farewell (conveniently the same phrase) and simultaneously bow (or maybe I was doing this wrong for three weeks…). I came to perceive this gentle bow as a gesture of acknowledgement and respect, a way to express gratitude. Imagine now the sight of countless heads bowed in prayer, filling a huge church auditorium with multi-tiered balconies. It’s an incredibly powerful and moving sight that I will never forget, one that is changing my posture of prayer and developing a deeper reverence for my creator God, my loving Father. Bowing my head in prayer is no longer just “the thing you do when you pray,” but it is a posture of deep respect, admiration, honor; a reminder of His holiness, that I am not fit to be in His presence but for His radiating love and mercy; an expression of thankfulness; an acknowledgement of His greatness, of my humility and submission. And so, I bow in gratefulness to the people of Korea for these life-changing weeks, for teaching me lessons I didn’t know I needed. And I bow in gratefulness to God for this opportunity of growth and greater awareness, for His ever-present grace and care, for the continuous shaping of my heart.