Returning

“Don’t cry because its over.  Smile because it happened.” –Dr. Seuss

So my YAV year is coming to an end. I will be leaving Korea in a few days, going on a short trip to Japan, and then returning to the US. This does not mean my blogs are over yet. I still have a few posts about Korea that I want to share. Also, I am excited to announce that I will be doing a second YAV year in New York City, serving at the Presbyterian Ministry to the United Nations.

But in honor of leaving Korea, I am sharing a refection I wrote during a final retreat with my housemates and site coordinators. I was reflecting on the Bible story in Acts 2: 1-13, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost and gives some people the ability to speak in different tongues (languages). There is a lot of suprise at this sudden event, and some people doubt if it is real, saying these people speaking in different languages probably just drank too much wine.

Throughout my year in Korea, my fellow YAVs and I have learned to speak in “different tongues,” sometimes with specific language and sometimes through other means.

Sometimes we communicated using Korean, but if that didn’t work we used hand gestures and body language.

We learned about how to communicate non-violently using clear language to describe how we feel and make requests of others.

We learned how a simple act such as gratefully receiving food or gifts offered to us by a Korean friend is a way to demonstrate our relationship with that person

We learned all these things, all these tongues. Mastered none of them. But we tried and learned all the same.

When we return home, our way of communicating may seem different to those that new us before. They may think us strange, and wonder why we changed…or like some of the people in this story, they may doubt us and say we just drank too much. But we’ll explain the reason for our change quite simply: “I was a Korea YAV.”

One Sport, Many Lessons

“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.  So do it.”  -Kurt Vonnegut

Since the beginning of March, one of the elders at the Hannam University church has been teaching us 검도 (geomdo) once a week, a martial art that is derived from the Japanese sword fighting sport called Kendo.  It involves using a bamboo sword to hit your opponent and score points.

검도 is a lot of fun, though it’s very difficult.  For me, the difficulty starts from the moment I arrive for practice because I have a lot of trouble putting on the uniform.  As some of you may know, I am terrible at tying knots and still have trouble tying my shoes.  So putting on a uniform that involves tying multiple knots, including behind my back is very complicated and tiresome.  I usually end up needing someone else to help me put the darn thing on.  The guy that sometimes helps me said that I am “very thin” because no uniform seems to fit snugly.  I don’t think that is accurate because I’m not any smaller than some of the other guys.  Regardless, the uniform is a little big, and the belt section of the uniform has to be wrapped around my midriff multiple times to be tight.  When someone is helping me put the uniform on, I feel like a bride being helped into her wedding dress.  Except, my issue isn’t that the outfit is too tight.  It is that the outfit may slide down during practice.

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Anyways, once I finally am dressed, we meet and do some warm-ups and stretching.  Then I join the elder from the church, who instructs us in the basic form and footwork.  There are a lot of things to keep track of. Your back foot is always on the ground.  Grip the sword closer to the bottom of the handle.  When you swing, you shouldn’t have lots of body movement.  It should be smooth.  Simple, right?

During one of our last weeks, my teacher let me join the other students to practice hitting against a rack of tires.  Each tire was positioned to be where the wrist and head of your opponent would be.  We lined up to practice our swings and rotated one by one.  After a couple hits, we would rest and then do another round.  Each round was faster and faster.  By the last few rounds, people were sweating and beginning to lose breath.  But me being the rookie, I was having too much fun hitting stuff.  I wonder if the others thought I was weird because I was smiling the whole time.

At our last practice, our teacher let us try on the full keomdo uniform, complete with pads and face mask.  Even though we hadn’t practiced enough to “earn” the right to wear the uniform, he wanted us to have the experience of wearing it.  He even let me wear his uniform.  Of course, I needed a lot of help and supervision to get the whole outfit on.  However, once it was on, it was pretty awesome.  And hot.  After doing a few practice hits with a partner, I was sweating.

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I mention all of this to say, that we don’t know what opportunities we encounter.  Sometimes we look for them.  And sometimes they find us.  Our teacher didn’t have to offer to teach us about this wonderful sport.  He certainly didn’t have to let us try on a full uniform.  But he did it out of kindness and a desire to share the sport he loves with us.

No Gun Ri

“The restoration of human rights is the fruit of sweat and sacrifice of so many people.  Peace is given to those who cherish it.” –No Gun Ri Peace Memoria Museum

Earlier this year, we visited the No Gun Ri Peace Memorial.  I had never heard of this place before, so let me give you some background. During the Korean War, a group of refugees were escorted from their villages by US troops, under the pretext of transporting them to a safer village in the mountains.  During the trip, the refugees woke up one night and the troops had disappeared, so they continue their journey alone. Later, they ran into more troops who told them to follow a rail road path towards their destination.  The refugees complied, and once they were along the rail road, planes started dropping bombs on them.  The refugees ran into a tunnel underneath the rail road tracks.  The US troops set up a machine gun on a hill and repeatedly fired into the tunnel for three days.  Most of the refugees who died were women, children, and the elderly.  There were at least 226 victims, with more unconfirmed.  To make matters worse, it was revealed during an investigation (50 years later) that the whole incident was under/misreported in the US military records.

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This is under the bridge at No Gun Ri where the massacre took place. Note the paint that marks the bullet holes in the wall, as well as several that mark US bullets still stuck in the concrete.
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The statue is of a woman nursing a baby. The woman standing next to the statue is the daughter of the mother depicted in the statue, holding her younger sister. That mother actually gave birth to a baby under the bridge during the attack. The mother died. The surviving villagers were confused as to why the US soldiers kept firing on them. They thought it might be the baby crying, so they convinced the father to drown the baby. The firing continued anyway.

This investigation was started because of the courage and demands of the victims of the massacre.  Eventually, with the help of journalists in Seoul and the US, the truth came out. The investigation culminated in a statement from President Bill Clinton expressing “regret” over the incident and the release of two reports on the massacre, one each from the American and South Korean governments.  The site, called No Gun Ri because it is the name of the village closest to the incident, has been turned into a peace memorial. A few weeks ago, we had the privilege to be invited for a memorial service for the victims at the No Gun Ri Memorial.  Present were not just family members but also the American journalist who helped break the story and further the investigation in the US.  We also got to hear some of the family members ask her questions about more work that can be done.

 

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Martha Mendoza was an AP reporter who helped investigate the incident and published the first international article on it in the 90’s, which helped lead to an official investigation. She said her editors first refused to publish her article because the US government claimed none of it was true, that no US soldiers where at that location at that time. So she went to the Pentagon and found the military documents that recorded the location of the soldiers who were indeed there at that time. She also found individual soldiers willing to give her interviews, admitting to the massacre.

These questions really surprised me.  Outside of an outright apology from the US government, what work could be left? The truth was already out.  But it turns out that recognition of the truth is only one step in the healing process.  And I don’t mean healing only for the victims of the event.  I mean healing for the perpetrators as well.  The American journalist said that some of the former US soldiers she interviewed were ashamed of their involvement.  Many of them were young men at the time, just following orders.  One of them still couldn’t sleep at night, because in his mind, he would always see the people he killed.

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Chung, Koo-Do and Yang, Hae-Chan light incense to honor family members they lost under the bridge. Mr. Chung lost what would have been his older brother and sister. Mr. Yang was under the bridge himself, but survived to remember.

The leaders of the surviving refugee family members would like soldiers that participated in the No Gun Ri massacre to come to the memorial and meet with the survivors.  This is an incredible idea.  The purpose of the meeting is not to shame to the soldiers.  It is a chance for healing for both groups, and even reconciliation.  Instead of demonizing the soldiers who killed their loved ones, the victims recognize the humanity of those that wronged them.  They see the soldiers as victims of this incident as well.  And they know that these people also need healing. Of course, many of the soldiers have passed away, so the families of the No Gun Ri incident would like family members of those soldiers to come instead.  I don’t how feasible or likely that is to occur.  But I pray that it will happen.

In war time situations, it is so easy to demonize the “other” side of the conflict, especially the perpetrators.  But the survivors of No Gun Ri refuse to let anger and sadness be the end of the story.  They are pursuing healing for everyone involved. Through that healing process, they can create a new relationship with the soldiers, one shaped not purely by violence and loss.  But a relationship also shaped by hope.  Hope for reconciliation between all the victims of war across the world.  And most importantly, hope for peace.

A New Leader

Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.” –John Maxwell

In May, South Korea elected a new president, Moon Jae In.  It has been interesting to watch this election process unfold.  For one thing, choosing from as many as 15 candidates in one single election seemed overwhelming to me.   Unlike the US’s more strict two party system including primary elections, each party has a candidate and people can also run independently.  Check out this banner showing the different candidates.  For the candidates labeled with numbers one through five, the numbers represent the ranking their party holds in terms of numbers of seats the National Assembly after the previous election.  The rest of the candidates were independents, and I’m not sure how their number was determined.

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So many candidates…

The process of President Moon’s election provides a refreshing reminder that even when there are political problems, democratic principles can still prevail.  In South Korea, there was evidence that the former president’s behavior was inappropriate (corruption and sharing confidential information).  So there was an investigation and then the president was impeached and removed from office.  Then a new president was elected by the people.  What a wonderful example of democracy!

Some might say it was terrible that the president had to be impeached; that it is an embarrassment.  Many Koreans would agree.  But at the same time, it should be celebrated that the prescribed laws of democracy were followed and well executed.  Even in today’s world, many countries face difficulties removing problematic or corrupt leaders from office.  Though it was not easy in this case either (the former president still denies wrongdoing), democracy prevailed. And I hope that President Moon Jae In will keep to those democratic principles.

The President’s election also contrasts with the recent global trend of electing more conservative leaders.  For a Korean politician he is more liberal to moderate.  A former human rights lawyer whose parents were North Korean refugees, he protested against the United States backed military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee in the 1980s.   In terms of international policy, President Moon does want to maintain the relationship with the US, but also wants South Korea to not “rely” on that relationship, especially in terms of defense capabilities.  On the issue of North Korea, instead of pursuing a hard-line mentality like his predecessors, President Moon is willing to go to North Korea and talk with leaders if it will help resolve tensions with the North over it’s nuclear program development and help bring peace to the Korean peninsula.  Domestically, he is focused on ending corruption and creating more employment opportunities to help economic growth.  His resume and platform indicate a strong commitment to the people.  He has big challenge ahead of him and I hope he is up to the task!

Change

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Well, it has been a while since my last blog post.  Sorry, everyone.  We’ve been busy and I’ve been trying to process the things we are learning.  A lot has happened and there have been some changes here in Korea. I can’t catch up on everything in one post.  But I’ll talk about a few things.

First, fall changed to winter, which actually is not a whole lot different from Maryland winters.  In fact, my home in Maryland may have gotten more snow than I got in Daejeon. Then spring began, starting with the blooming of beautiful cherry blossoms.

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There were also changes at the community center where I work.  A new school year started, so all the older middle school students that I got to know (because their English was pretty good) graduated to high school. ☹ The “go-to” game that I play with the kids changed from chess, to Rummikub, to me watching them play with Pokemon cards, to One Card (similar to Uno).

Probably the most upsetting change is that my housemates have gotten used to my terrible pun jokes and now just ignore them.

On the national level, the Korean president was officially impeached and finally arrested.  In addition, the Seweol ferry, a ferry that sank off the coast of Korea three years ago due to unknown causes and resulted in the deaths of about 300 passengers, was finally excavated from the ocean for investigation.  There are still nine passengers missing from that event.  This past Easter Sunday, I attended a Christian memorial service to remember the victims and pray for healing.

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The concept of change is complicated.  Whether it is positive or negative, change can still be difficult.  Further, trying to create change can be even more difficult.  But it also can be inspiring.  Here is a devotion reflection I did for the last day in Lent, also known as the day after Good Friday and before Easter.  The topic of the devotion was despair.  But I promise I’ll connect it to change.

“The author of the devotional described how it is awkward to see others in despair.  We don’t know what to say or how to comfort someone who has suffered greatly.  And he says that sometimes we just have to be present for that person, and wait and pray despair is turned into hope.

I think a good example of people overcoming despair and turning it into hope is the Korean comfort women.  These women were forced into slavery during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945.  After suffering such intense horrors and tragedies, they easily could have lost hope.  They could have given into their despair.  But they didn’t allow their tragic experience to define them.  Instead, they used it to connect with other women who suffered similar experiences in other countries and to increase awareness about wartime violence against women across the world.  They changed their despair into hope for acknowledgement from the Japanese government and hope for ending violence against women.  Their story is a miracle.

We participate in that story by visiting the museums they’ve built, attending the protests they organize, and wearing butterfly pins to keep the memory of their experiences alive.  By doing so, we become a part of their hope.”

Happy Easter.

People, Presidents, and Prayer

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but for what you can do for your country.”

-President John F. Kennedy

On Sunday, November 6th I had a discussion with one of my Korean friends about the current political situation in South Korea.  In short, it was discovered that the president (Park Geun-Hye) was sharing drafts of her speeches with a particular mentor for “suggestions,” as well as countless documents on classified information such as inner cabinet working and national security briefings among others.  Further, she only delivered the final version of these speeches, which included her mentor’s edits, so she had influence over the president’s policies and appointments.  This has fed people’s suspicions that she is so incompetent, she cannot do anything on her own, including public speaking.  Further complicating things, is the fact that the mentor is the daughter of a Christian/Shaman/Buddhist cult founder, and a “priestess” herself.  In addition, there is clear financial corruption in the president’s administration, which is connected to the mentor friend.

I asked my friend about his perspective on the matter.  This is his answer, albeit paraphrased: “Our president cannot do many things on her own.  I thought puppet presidents were a thing of the past.  If South Korea was a developing country, I could understand how having a puppet a president could be possible.   But South Korea is a developed country and we are in the 21st century.”  I could sense his disappointment, frustration, and embarrassment at the whole ordeal.  It made me wonder, what does this mean for our society?  Even developed countries experience political issues.  Maybe modern society hasn’t progressed as far we like to believe.

After we exhausted that topic, he asked if we could talk about something less serious.  So we talked about movies.  We even made a list of films we will watch together.  First up, The Bridget Jones Diary (his choice, I don’t like romantic comedies).  It must be a theme of this year.  The only other things we have watched in our house are a Korean romantic drama and Pride and Prejudice.  Both are surprisingly entertaining.

That’s where this blog post originally ended.

Then on Tuesday, November 8th, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.  What surprised me was not only his victory, but the fact the he won almost every swing state.  His victory reminds of an issue that we talk about regularly in the YAV program:  we cannot think of things as isolated, unfortunate incidents.  Instead, we should think about “of what is this an instance.”  We should not see individual events as problematic, but rather think about how they are an example of larger societal issues.  This perspective applies to issues of gender, race, economic welfare, and social justice.  And it applies to politics too.

In this case, there was a clear divide between certain demographics of the United States’ population.  Certain people, in fact many people, are tired of the “same-old” politics.  They want change.  And they felt Donald Trump best represented them because he was the outsider in the entire election.  Even though as a wealthy businessman, he may not have that much in common with many of them.

I am not shaming anyone for voting the way they did.  Actually, I realized that I don’t know many people who vocally supported Trump.  But maybe that is indicative of the problem.  I am from an urban, middle class family.   I am openly liberal, at least on social issues. Many of my friends are like-minded and from similar backgrounds.  So even if one of them did support Donald Trump, they wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it amongst our circle of friends.

Further, maybe I have been blind to the plight of fellow Americans in other parts of the country.  As a YAV, I live in a house with four other American volunteers.  Though we are from different parts of the country, we all are college educated and committed to our work in Korea.  We also share similar political views. Yet, even in our small community we have communication issues.  Sometimes people feel misunderstood or misinterpreted.  This can cause them to feel alone.  And we have to work out those issues through dialogue and clear communication.  It’s not easy.  We don’t always succeed.   Maybe these communication issues occur in our larger society as well.

So, I ask my fellow Americans: It is the 21st century.  Clearly, not all of us are on the same page.  Some people feel marginalized and alone.  And in the election, their “champion” won: Donald Trump.  Because like his supporters, he was the outsider amidst the status quo.  What does this say about our society?

Further, in comparing political situations of South Korea and the United States, it is evident that distrust of the political establishment is a common theme, even in developed countries.  (The Brexit situation could be another example as well).

Regardless of what is to come, I pray for South Korea. I pray for the United States.  I pray for better dialogues and understandings between people.  I pray that people feel they have a voice in their political system and that their voices are heard.

And I pray that Bridget Jones Diary is as entertaining as everyone says.

 

Always a Student

“Teaching is not about information.  It’s about having an honest, intellectual relationship with your students.”  -Paul Lockhart

Every week, Monday through Wednesday, I work in the children’s center of a welfare community center for about 3 hours.  I mainly work with elementary and middle school students. I thought I would be asked to teach English, like some of my fellow volunteers do at their sites.  But instead I was told, “If you speak English, speak very slowly……actually maybe don’t speak English at all.  Focus on making relationships with the children and improving your Korean.”  So I am to become friends with the kids, but still referred to as 선생님 (seon-sehng-nim) or “teacher”, like the other staff.

Initially, I thought these somewhat vague instructions might bother me.  But I have come to really appreciate the simple instruction “make relationships.”  Because I am not a teacher, I don’t feel pressured to make sure the children learn anything specific.  For lack of a better phrase, it allows me to simply “be.”  I can play with the kids, help grade homework, or simply watch and observe their interactions.  But oddly enough, some of the kids really like using the limited English they do know around me.  The phrases “Hello!”, “I am good!”, and “Yummy!” are quiet popular.

During my first few weeks, there have been some very memorable moments with the kids.   A few of the boys like for me to play chess with them.  So I play a lot of chess.  Though they don’t always follow the rules of the game…

In one game, I played against one boy while another watched.  The boy watching was telling me where to move my pieces.  I almost always followed his advice, and if I ever disagreed agreed with his advice, I explained why.  About halfway through the game, I pointed at him and called him 선생님 and called myself 학생 (hak-sehng) or “student.”  It seemed appropriate, since he was calling most of our plays. He looked at me with a puzzled expression, then he smiled and laughed.

Another day, I heard the boys talking about a subject very dear to my heart: Pokémon (it’s a series of cartoons, video games, and a card game about catching monsters and using them to battle).  I didn’t know exactly what they were saying, but I still immediately joined the conversation.  The boys began naming Pokémon in Korean to see if I recognized the names.  However, I quickly realized that only some of the English Pokémon names sound similar to the Korean ones.  So we used my phone to look up any Pokémon that the kids mentioned.  This was an awesome bonding moment for me and the boys.  Unfortunately, after 15 minutes, one of the other teachers came over to me.  She said the kids are not allowed to use phones until a certain time in the day. So my phone went back into my pocket. But the boys just kept asking me Pokémon names even if we couldn’t look them up on my phone. Once we exhausted that topic, we named characters from the popular Japanese cartoon One Piece (thankfully all the names sound the same in English and Korean).

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A third moment was when I asked an elementary school girl if she was reading a book.  But she interpreted it as me saying that I wanted to read a book to her.  So she pulled a kids book of the shelf for me to read out loud.  Two important context notes: 1) Since my Korean vocabulary is limited, I had to read the whole book syllable-by-syllable, and 2) the book is about a piece of dog poop that gets lonely, makes friends with a rock, and later becomes part of the earth and grows into a flower.  It’s actually a beautiful story with a deep message.  It’s also comical when read by an incompetent, non-native Korean speaker surrounded by middle school girls who laugh every time the word for poop is spoken.  But the girls were great teachers.  They were patient with my slow reading speed.  And any time I incorrectly pronounced a word, they corrected me and had me read the sentence again.

 

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I guess the moral of these stories is that certain things are universally entertaining, including chess, Pokémon, and poop. And that no matter what your title is, you are always a 학생 (student).