The Power of Rice and Worship

“I like rice.  Rice is great if you’re hungry and want two thousand of something.”

-Mitch Hedberg

Over the first few weeks I have been in Korea, there have been many funny and also educational moments.  Our first day in Korea we went out for lunch with the pastors of the church at the university where I live.  It was our first real Korean meal.  And it was delicious!

During the meal, one of the pastors noticed I hadn’t finished my bowl of rice.  Knowing I couldn’t understand Korean, he pointed at the rice, then hit his stomach with his fist, flexed his arms, and proclaimed “밥심!!” (pap sim).  This phrase translates to “Rice power!”  Of course, I finished my bowl of rice after such a profound statement.

After spending a little more time in Korea, I realized that I really like rice.  Growing up I never cared for it unless it had soy sauce with it.  But the rice in Korea is cooked so that it has flavor and sticks together, making it easier to pick up with chopsticks.  I’ve also spent time thinking about the American cartoon character known as Pop Eye, who got his strength and muscle power from eating spinach.  If there was a Korean equivalent, the character would definitely draw his strength from rice.  Maybe he would be called “Pap-sim Man”?  Or maybe he could also eat kimchi and then turn red and breathe fire…But I digress.

We also started our Korean language class.  The course is taught almost entirely in Korean because the students are from different countries such as the US, China, and Mongolia.  The first few days were hard but as we have expanded our vocabulary, our understanding of the language has improved.  I can almost follow along with slow hymns in church!

Finally, we started our Sunday worship and youth groups as well.  Each Sunday, I attend the beginning of the worship service and then leave to help with the middle school and high school youth group.  Not much has happened yet, but I will post about it once things really get rolling.  After the service, we eat lunch.  We also found out about a contemporary worship service in the afternoon that some of our university friends attend.  The music is very good – bass, drums, and quite a few passionate college students singing. The sermon is done in a slightly different style and by a different pastor than the traditional service.  Even though we, the Americans, can’t understand most of what people are saying, it is still spiritually empowering.

I find this very funny. Honestly, I like church. But in the US you could not get me to attend two church services in the same day (and those services would be in a language I completely understand).  Yet here I am in Korea attending two services almost every Sunday when I have no idea what is going on.  And I really enjoy it.  Maybe there’s something in the rice that gives me heightened spiritual awareness…and if not, the rice (along with kimchi, bulgogi, and some good vegetables) fill us physically while these worship services fill us spiritually.

Orientation

“It’s nice that you are here.  But we don’t need you.”

-Young Adult Volunteer Coordinator reflecting on his own YAV experience

Last week, we had a well-organized orientation that challenged us to start thinking about our work for the year.  The quote above was from our program coordinator who reminded us that most of our sites don’t “need” us.  We are not doing our work to save the world, nor can we do so in one year. But we are serving to help learn and to be served by those around us. We also discussed social justice issues such as racism and our personal roles in aiding or confronting those issues.  For international YAVS, we also discussed our privilege as (mostly white) Americans in a foreign country.

One particular exercise had all of the volunteers split into two groups, volunteers who identify as white and volunteers who identify as people of color.  Being a bi-racial person of privilege, I was torn about which group to join.  I don’t face the challenges and struggles that many people of color deal with, but I also do not identify as only white.  So I joined the persons of color group.  I knew I made the right choice when we discussed how people of color have many different backgrounds, and are often mis-identified by others.  You can’t put someone in a box solely based on the color of their skin.  It was helpful to know that other people face this stereotyping issue.

However, I also noticed that I was the only male in that group.  So I asked staff members if I was in fact the only male of color.  They responded that I was not, there were others.  However, those individuals chose to go with the volunteers who identified as white, and their decision should be respected.

Later in the week, an announcement was made about starting an affinity group for white males.  The group’s purpose was to discuss how white males can (1) recognize the privilege given to them by society and (2) not allow that privilege to push other racial groups out of conversations and decisions.  Being a bi-racial person of privilege who partially identifies as white, I attended.  When I first walked into the room, I think some people were surprised to see me there, since I had not joined the group of volunteers who identify as white the day before.  The first time I spoke, I gave an explanation of my racial background and acknowledged my privilege.  I have every need to be held accountable to not use or allow my privilege to push other racial groups out of conversations. I knew I made the right choice when we discussed how hard it is to not fall into the roles that society has laid out for us, such as dominating conversations and always being “in charge.”  Even in attempts to be inclusive by inviting other racial/ethnic groups to the table to discuss racial matters, we fail to recognize our privilege.  True equality and true respect means that we allow people of other racial groups to set the table and invite us into the conversation.  It was helpful to know that other white males recognize their privilege and are trying to confront it in their own lives as a first step in addressing racial issues.

As I begin my year in Korea, these topics play in the back of my mind.  How does my privilege as an American manifest itself in ways that I do not recognize?  How does it change the way people interact with me?  And as a person with Asian features, how do Koreans react to me differently than other Americans?  These questions tie in to the quote at the beginning of this post.  Through this orientation, all of us YAVs recognize our privilege regardless of race.  We also know that we are not “needed” to improve the communities we serve.  But maybe we need these communities, and the opportunities this year presents to us, to improve our own understandings of ourselves.

YAV Orientation
My small group from orientation. A supportive group of people serving all over the world.

There’s no place like Pittsburgh

“We live in an imperfect world that doesn’t accept imperfect people”

-my co-worker quoting someone else

Pittsburgh

As I prepare for my YAV year in South Korea, I first must reflect on what I have learned since graduating college. This past year I was a PULSE Fellow, working at the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board (TRWIB) doing research and data retrieval/analysis.  I really enjoyed my experience and loved the city of Pittsburgh.  But I struggled at times.  In college, everything was structured.  I knew when assignments were due and how long it takes to complete them.  I could plan everything out.  It was really nice. But not always true in the real world.  I am very thankful that I got to serve in Pittsburgh and especially at the TRWIB. Here some key things I learned about work life and myself:

  1. Don’t have too many expectations for yourself. You get frustrated real quickly if you expect too much.
  2. Clear, consistent communication is important. Didn’t think I’d ever have trouble with this one.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes I got in my head I would just figure out the answer to a problem. But when more tasks arise unexpectedly, it’s better to ask how to do the task you’re working on and just get it done. Pride and ego don’t get results. They lead to frustration. Further, you may think you’re wasting other people’s time by asking them for help. But you’re usually not.
  4. Prepare for the unexpected. Things will come up that you can never foresee.  Be ready to roll with the punches.

And here are some things I learned about economic development and the non-profit world:

  1. Clear, consistent communication is important. (It’s true!) People working on the ground need to communicate the issues and challenges they encounter to the higher ups, who make the big decisions. Without proper communication, decisions are made that will not have the intended positive impact on the community.
  2. Money matters. I already knew this, but the bidding process for grants and funding can create a competitive non-profit system. The loser in this competitive system is often the community, which does not receive the best services or is not consulted about what they actually need before spending decisions are made.
  3. Change takes time. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight. But it also doesn’t occur over a year. Real change in a community starts by building strong relationships.
  4. Economic development problems and social justice issues are all tied to history. Racism, sexism, and religious intolerance exist because of historical events/concepts that shaped societal attitudes. Then laws/processes were put into place that reflected those attitudes, even if not obviously stated. The result is a system in which the haves and have nots of society are partially pre-determined. It doesn’t matter if the issue is housing, transportation, or education.   Finally, “them vs us” attitudes will not lead to any positive change.

This is from one experience in one city in the US. I’m excited to see how my work in Korea will add to or re-shape this list.

This blog will be a space where I ponder my world view, current events, and yes, share some cool photos.  I hope this blog  will be thought provoking and encourages discussion.  Feel free to comment!

Thank you to everyone who is making my experience possible. And to those who have supported me throughout my life.

Now let the adventures (and the blogging) begin!