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.
I have had several encounters with other languages and it is always a daunting challenge at first. Luckily, English is one of the most widely used languages in the world. Without Korean signs and the occasional English speaker, I would be completely lost here. Most of my other foreign language experience comes from traveling through Europe. There you can find similar words to their English counterpart, as well as similarities between other languages such as Spanish, Italian, and French. Besides English, I speak a small amount of Spanish. Unfortunately, I never visited Spain once! Korea has been much, much more difficult in terms of the language barrier. However, I still believe that with concentrated effort one can get by. Paris was one of my longer stays and over 8 days I made it my goal to learn as many useful phrases as possible. I did not get very far, but my Dad took this one step further, when he came to visit me he had already taken 10 weeks of French during his work commute! This is where I give my best advice in regards to foreign language. Learn whatever you can and use it as often as you can. People in another country will appreciate your effort to speak their language. Another piece of advice is to avoid frustration. You and the person you are attempting to converse with speak entirely different languages, laugh it off if you get bad directions or order the wrong food, it will get easier. Furthermore, make heavy use of hand gestures and pointing. Body language goes a long way.
South Korea is full of surprises. For me, it is like nowhere else I have ever been, everything is new and different. I have felt like a foreigner before, but those experiences pale in comparison to how I feel here. That being said, one major surprise I have found is that as the completion of this interim draws near, I have found myself much more comfortable in South Korea than I originally anticipated. I can roughly find my way around, use basic gesture and a few phrases, I know how warmly I need to dress and how to eat Korean food. I know how to behave on a subway and what to say after I have finished a meal. True comfort in a foreign country takes years, however I am pleasantly surprised with the tiny amounts of familiarity and ease I have managed to acquire in a short time. Another powerful surprising experience I have encountered comes from my interactions with Korean people, particularly the elderly. To give some background, like most left-leaning 20-something millennials, I find American nationalism to be fleeting emotion. It is alarmingly easy in today's world to find cynicism and pessimism everywhere in our over-saturated 24-hour news cycle. Growing up, in public high school my education on American history was heavily skewed towards criticism of our "great" nation. Truthfully, I tend to agree that American Exceptional-ism and ignorant pride are dangerous sentiments, but I also cannot help to protest the equally dangerous cynicism tied to a view of our country that only seeks to point out its flaws and its weakening role as a world power through constant comparisons and the idea that today, American tourists are more often hated in other countries rather than accepted. Certainly as foreigners we have to become conscious of our role as guests in another culture and behave in the appropriate manner, but we must simultaneously ward away negative thinking about how another country may view the United States. I too am a victim to this way of thinking, that since our glorious heroism in World War II, through foreign policy blunder after foreign policy blunder, our country is way past its prime and most other countries hate us. To my surprise in South Korea, I have found this to be completely untrue. It is harder to say for the younger generations, but numerous encounters with elderly Koreans have been wonderful interactions between two people separated by age, language, and culture. I had one elderly man tell me from the Urinal next to me how much respect he has for Americans because they helped Korea when they were in need. Another time, I sat next to a man on the Busan subway and helped him practice his English by reading a newspaper. Still others have come up to our large group to marvel at our beards or ask about our studies and travels in Korea. The Korean people have been nothing, but kind to me while I have been here.