Thursday, September 11, 2014

How I Learned to Communicate

 This past year in South Korea, my biggest problem was communication. How do you talk with or even be with people when nobody really understands what the other is saying? But it strikes me that this is a challenge everyone faces everyday, even in the United States. So, here I would like to offer a summary of my time in Korea, framed as a response to the question of how we learn to communicate.

Step 1: Curiosity

One of my jobs was working at an after school program for rural kids in DongDuCheon, about two hours outside of Seoul. When I first arrived, the kids and I moved about in our own separate spheres. I wanted nothing more than to play and work with them, and they were fascinated by me. But how to intersect? Remember when you were a kid and you pretended to be “Chinese” by pulling at the side of your eyes to make them narrow? About two weeks into my work at the center, a brave little girl sat down next to me. We smiled at each other. Then she put her hands to her face and smooshed her eyes together and said something in rapid Korean. All I was able to catch of it was “teacher” and “eyes”. I smiled and gave her my most absurd smile while making my own eyes as huge as possible. We stared at each other like this for a good couple of minutes until we were both giggling uncontrollably. She stood up, and skipped off. 


 Later that day, I noticed the kids were making strange noises at me, lots of “Ph”, “b”, “ug”, and “a” sounds. I asked my Korean co-teacher what they were doing. He stalled, and sidestepped, but I was perhaps a bit more insistent than was polite. At last he answered, “They’re pretending they speak English.” I was reminded of pretending to speak Chinese when I was a kid with all the “Chings” and “Chongs” I could muster. I was struck by just how similar the Korean kids are to kids in the States. After all, they’re all kids. I changed my approach to a fun and energetic one in hopes of getting closer to the kids.

The real breakthrough came when I brought some pictures of my family in Texas for the kids. There was one of my dad riding a horse. When my kids saw it, they burst out in Korea, “Carlin teacher’s dad is a cowboy”. Nevermind the fact that my father is in full English riding gear at a dressage show, about the least cowboy form of horse riding ever.  Oh no, from then on my dad was a cowboy, and it was fascinating. They never tired of asking questions about it, and I never tired of asking them questions about their own lives. Our curiosity about one another’s lives became too much for the silence and awkward sidestepping to bear. We finally began to communicate.

Step 2: The Basics of conversation

I also worked at a workshop for mentally handicapped adults, teaching basic English classes, helping with meals, and the work that provided these adults with an income. One student managed to pick up exactly two phrases. “How are you?” and “Very good.” I sat next to him most days. He would ask me over and over and over again, all day, “How are you?” And I would respond. This is as far as our conversations ever got, but there was so much more expressed. In a giant city like Seoul, it was always a relief for someone to acknowledge, “you are a person, and I care about your state of being”. If this is all we managed to express to one another, it felt good. 

Lee Ji-Hoon in the Center at a Birthday Celebration.
 Another of the adults loved WWE style wrestling. He spent most of the day in non-stop chatter. I eventually figured out he was pretending to be an announcer at various wrestling matches, most often matches in which he was wrestling. He picked up exactly one phrase of English from my classes. “In this corner, Lee Ji-Hoon!” This is how I greeted him in the mornings and he would throw his arms in the air. Again, the basics of conversation, “you are a human being, you are Lee Ji-Hoon, and I care about how you are.”

Step 3: The Tough Questions

Another hat I wore was Sunday school teacher for the English Speaking Mission that provided a church home for people far away from home. I had students from America, British, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Nigerian backgrounds. At a church outing, I was wandering around with two girls. One was British and American; the other was Nigerian and Korean. We were in the sanctuary of the church when I realized they were putting their heads together about something that seemed quite serious. I asked them, and they referred to the mural of good-ole-boy-white-Jesus at the front of the church, and asked, “How do they know what color hair Jesus had?” I responded that I didn’t know for sure what color hair he had. Then they surveyed one another’s blond and black hair and it hit me that the question that was trying to be communicated was really, “Did Jesus look like me?”
 
1/3 of the Sunday School Behaving Like Hooligans.
The “well, historically speaking Jesus was from this area of the world and people from this area of the world generally have these features…blah blah blah” was not the answer to the question they were actually asking. So I responded, most untheologically, that God was greater than anyone of us could imagine so Jesus could have any hair color we could imagine and then probably some that we couldn’t even imagine. They responded that we could all just find out in heaven. And just like that, the moment was over and they returned to running like hooligans around the sanctuary. 

English Mission in the Fall.

Step 4: The Ah-Ha Answer

On Wednesday nights in Seoul, I had an English conversation group for an organization called “Chogokbo” that worked with Women from the Korean Diaspora by providing a place to eat drink and be merry for North Korean women who had defected to South Korea. They also focused on communicating the stories of these women to people around the world.  I was occasionally put to work editing English versions of their stories. While I was there they were working on a series about the decision to leave North Korea. I wasn’t excited about editing at first. I was pretty sure I knew the reason. They were poor, and cold, and starving and they wanted to be wealthy, and warm, and well fed. But one man wrote about how he was scheduled to depart for his ten years of mandatory military service. Before he departing, he managed to get a hold of a copy of Plato’s Republic. He told of how reading the famous allegory of the cave where you are chained and all you can see are shadows until you are released and walk out of the cave into blinding sunlight made him understand how he had been held his whole life. He wrote that he was prepared for the blinding sunlight. He was leaving North Korean on philosophical and ethical grounds. I had, previous to this reduced the North Korean population and problem to something animal and hungry. I had not been seen the reality of North Koreans as functional, intelligent, and rational people. A tough question was asked, and someone was willing to speak a hard truth that had the power to change how people view the world. 


 Step 5: Questioning Communication

Any line of philosophical inquiry eventually seems to progress to a point where it questions itself. Language and communication eventually reach a point where they begin to reflect on themselves. This is where we must pause and reflect and internalize rather than answering an immediate answer. 

This happened eventually with the children in DongDuCheon, whose curiosity started this reflection. On one of our culture days, we sat down with a map of the world, and looked at South Korea and the United States and talked about the different histories, and people in both places. After my basic little presentation, I asked if there were any questions. After a couple about my cowboy father, one middle school boy asked, “Why do people of different races live together in America?” I am dumbfounded and totally silent so he clarified the question, “I mean, isn’t it hard to everyone to talk to each other?” 


 Kids, you don’t know the half of it. How do you communicate with people that are so, so different? When you haven’t had the same experience? At that is in the lucky case that you at least speak the same language. How have we managed to create a community when it is so hard to communicate with one another? I could not give to adequate answer. So, I just told him I didn’t know but it was a great challenge to American people.

Step 6: The Holy Spirit

As I flew home from South Korea to Texas a week and a half ago, I tried to figure out how I had managed to have some of the best conversations of my life with little language and little common background. What had happened to make this possible?

My mind flashed to a Saturday night that I had spent out in Seoul. I lived in community with the members of the Anglican seminary this past year and got to be very good friends with some of them. This night, I was feeling particularly stubborn so I became insistent upon understanding the Holy Spirit. I explained that I had some grasp on the notion of God the Father, and on Jesus as the Son of God, and why it made sense to separate them. I had different experiences of the two. But the Holy Spirit, Oh No. What was the difference? So we sat there in this basement and talked it out. Did I mention our language barrier? We went slowly, and intentionally with an English/Korean and Korean/English dictionary grasped in both our hands. And we sat and talked about our experience of the Lord. Not always understanding, but having a faith in the sincerity of what the other was trying to express. I walked away from this night, utterly and stubbornly unconvinced of the Holy Spirit. 

Friends Without Words
 When I thought back on this story, I have to laugh at myself. Because two people who loved and believed in God were talking in different languages with faithful sincerity about this love and were understood. Obviously, I couldn’t recognize the Holy Spirit when it was violently bludgeoning me over the head…repeatedly.

I remember at training before I went to Korea that we were asked, in reference to our culture, how we would describe water to a fish. Perhaps this is why I failed to recognize the Holy Spirit while I was in Korea. I was literally swimming in it, depending upon it for every interaction. I needed to Holy Spirit to work, to teach Sunday school, to take the subway, and to go to the grocery store.  And everywhere, I met with people who tried so hard to understand me, who opened their hearts to me when language failed, and to whom my heart was opened. This is how I learned to communicate in Korea. Step by step and not with language, but with my whole heart and soul. 

Goodbye, South Korea.

P.S. This year I will serve another term with the Young Adult Service Corps doing disaster relief work in the area of the Southern Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan last year. To learn more or donate to this work visit my fundraising website. More information coming soon.

Friday, August 22, 2014

How Are You Feeling?


The North Wind and the Sun were often time in disagreement with one another. This should not be surprising as it is in their very natures to disagree with one another. One day cordial chatting ended, as it often does, in argument. This day, the topic of the argument centered around who was the stronger. Below them, a hapless and unaware fellow passed by. The North wind suggested that they engage in a little sport. Whoever could remove the man’s coat would clearly be the stronger. The North Wind, as he was wont to do, went first. He blew at the poor fellow with all his strength. But rather than removing the coat, he only succeeded in forcing his subject to pull it tighter about him. The Sun smiled, as he was wont to do, and began to heat up, slowly but surely warming the world around him. In time, the fellow grew too warm for such a heavy garment and removed his coat.

This is a story from Aesop’s Fables. More recently, it was the basis of Kim Dae Jung’s policy towards North Korea. Kim Dae Jung was the president of South Korea from 1998 to 2003. His “Sunshine Policy” respected the right of North Korea to be it’s own country and would not tolerate hostility on either side. It required South Korea to act as the Elder Brother to North Korea and provide humanitarian aid, trade, and other resources. He firmly believed that this kind persuasion would work better than force. This policy earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.

Even more recently, this story became the theme for the first annual English-Peace camp at the DongDuCheon Sharing House. Last week, thirty elementary and middle school students gathered for a week of peace camp. 
Excited for Camp to Start
 I was a wreck before the camp started. Running around getting things together, I love summer camp, so I wanted it to be perfect. Besides that, I was so nervous to work on such a difficult topic as peace with such young kids. Seven year olds and things on the schedule like “keynote speech” and “non-violence dialogue” was a simply horrifying. But, I realized that the kids in DongDuCheon have a particular and special need for this kind of conversation. First, DongDuCheon is one of the northernmost cities in South Korea. They are fairly close to the DMZ and from a young age, the division of the peninsula is a very real presence to them. Second, because of DonDuCheon’s strategic position, there had been a huge joint U.S./Korea military holding there for decades. Frankly speaking, in their lifetimes, the children have witnessed more violence from the U.S. military there than from North Korea. The town had been plagued with a history of prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence towards civilians, as well as a crippling economic dependence that ruined a number of people when part of the U.S. military stationed there was relocated. Basically, these kids have seen a lot and have clearly expressed feelings of fear in their own communities. 
Shaking out all the wiggles before my talk.
Swimming hole in the mountains of DungDuCheon. Fr. Kim talks about the value of natural resources.

So, how to tackle this issue? And what’s more, we are supposed to be practicing English and experiencing the joy of being in community at the same time. So, we decided to focus the camp around a simple question. How are you feeling? In Korea, English is taught in all the school and all students  are taught the same formulaic answerasess. Anyone living in Korea has heard this about a million times.

Person 1: Hi.
Person 2: Hi. How are you?
Person 1: I’m fine thank you and you?
Person 2: I’m fine thank you and you?

This is so prevalent that there is a long running joke about a Korean woman who goes to the US and is in a terrible car crash. The Medics run up to her and ask her how she is and she responds, “I’m fine thank you and you?”

Furthermore, in a talk I have with Fr. Kim, the Korean priest in charge of the Sharing House, he explained that in Korean culture, people are really discouraged from expressing emotions. His goal was to make the children comfortable with the feelings they had.

So, How are you feeling?

Proof we had fun and didn't just study.
We decided that it was a really great question because it is s question that is equally valid when asked to another and when asked to yourself. And yet, how often do we ask ourselves this? How often do we sincerely assess the way we feel? Human beings are both rational and emotional and yet many of us spend a great deal more time with reason. And, it is all the more often that we ask this question to others and we don’t really care to know the answer. As a waitress in high school and college I was guilty of asking this question a million times a day without even the slightest amount of interest in the answer. Yet, when I get a truthful answer, I am always glad that I stopped and asked.
We held hands and walked in a circle to look at everyone's art projects.

Getting in touch with our own pains and listening sincerely to those of other is the first step towards peace. Peace on a large scale must come from individuals that are committed to finding peace in their spirits.

Everyday started with meditation.
And so with this in mind, we learned words for all kinds of emotions in Korean and English, we played games, had practice dialogue, and performed skits. 



The last night of camp, we went night hunting in the area around the Sharing house to find balloons. Each camper got one and wrote down a hurt, a person’s name, something they wanted to forgive, or be forgiven of. We went out to the street together and released our balloons watching whatever was on our minds and in our hearts disappear into the warm dark August sky. One student was left in the street. I walked over and asked him what he was feeling. He looked and me, look at the sky and answered, “I don’t know.” Then we hugged. Of all the answers we practiced, nothing beat hearing the truth, plainly spoken.
 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

TOPIK Trip to Yanji China

This past week, I had the joy of visiting Yanji, China with Fr. Yoo, the TOPIK Director. The purpose of the visit was to pick up an ambulance that had been bought in China and transport it to the hospital that TOPIK supports in RS City, North Korea. Yanji, China is a fascinating area. It is in the Southeast corner of China where China, Russia, and North Korea border one another. As a result, it has a very multicultural mix of people, including a huge population of ethnically Korean Chinese. It is also one of the key points of access to North Korea for humanitarian organization. Here is a photographic look into our trip.

Fr. Yoo and I started at Incheon airport bright and early Sunday morning. Here is the terrible selfie to prove it.
We met Mr. Koo, a Korean now living in L.A., his son, and his nephew at the airport. After checking into our hotel, we went to collect the ambulance. What a beaut.

Along with the ambulance, a number of other medical supplies would make to journey to North Korea.

Mr. Koo's son and nephew testing out the ambulance.

Fr. Yoo baptizes the ambulance during our prayers for the ambulance and its service.


After we picked up the Ambulance, I discovered that we had done so in the parking lot of one of the many churches in China. I wasn't aware that there were ans many as there were. There are of course underground churches, which are not approved by the government. There are also Churches which are approved. This means they have pastors that have been examined and licensed by the government. Since these priests are in short supply, many of them visit several different churches to preach on Sundays. In the mean time, the various congregations sing and worship together. The church we visited had two different buildings, one that served the Korean speaking population and one that served the Chinese speaking population.


Korean side of the church.

Chinese side of the church.

After this we visited that the Yaiban Technical College. This is the first joint American and Chinese college established in China, and it serves a large number of Korean students as well.



A group of multinational, including one American, students playing basketball.


Some Korean students we made friends with.
That evening for dinner we went to a North Korean restaurant. The place is a joint economic venture of China and North Korea. The women who work there are all North Korean. They are allowed to reside and work in China for two years before returning to North Korea. In addition to serving North Korean cuisine, they perform a show of North Korean Folk music and dance every evening. Alas, I forgot to take pictures of the food or performance.
Fr. Yoo and I with two of the North Korean waitresses in Hamboks, traditional Korean clothing.

The next morning, we started early to the Chinese/North Korean border to prepare the the importation documents for the ambulance. Unfortunately, laws had changed and new paperwork was required to import the ambulance. So, another meeting with the company that manufactured the ambulance would be required before we could succeed. That day for lunch, we went to a small town nearby and had Chinese food. The town was even closer to the borders and all the signs were in a combination of Russian, Korean, and Chinese.
The restaurant where we had lunch.

Chinese customs station for import to North Korea.

Trucks waiting to be processed.
After lunch, Mr. Koo continued on to North Korea, this time without the ambulance to meet his obligation to TOPIK's partners there. Typically, South Korean citizens are not allowed into North Korea for any reason. The only way around this is to have dual citizenship and enter using the alternative passport. Mr. Koo maintains American citizenship, which, contrary to common belief does allow a person to enter North Korea, as long as an invitation letter is obtained.

On the way back to Yanji, Fr. Yoo and I stopped for some sightseeing. We visited an observation tower from which one can see China, North Korea, and Russia all at once. It was a tad bit foggy, but an amazing sight none the less. We also stopped by a tiny roadside stand where one can view the bridge into North Korea from China. There were lots of souveniers for sale ranging from mushrooms to traditional costumes, Russian dolls, and North Korean currency and cigarettes. Truly a strange corner of this Earth.



The left side beyond the water is Russia, the right side beyond to water is North Korea, and the foreground is China.
Last government building in China.




The main bridge leading to North Korea, just across the water.

The barbed wire ensuring you don't get just across the water.


Goods for sale at the roadside stand.


The Chinese military and processing station guarding the bridge to North Korea.
We then returned to Yanji, had supper, and went to sleep. The next morning, Fr. Yoo had a lot of work to do so I was free to wander about and explore a bit on the city.





Someones little slice of heaven.


Man under a bridge tries to sell dead turtle, hung upside down by tail to passing cars. Reminded me of the "Gofer Everett?" scene from "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"

Man attending his many fishing poles.


Riverside park. In the background is the largest church in Yanji.

After lunch, I Fr. Yoo and I were reunited. We went and toured the biggest university in Yanji. Fr. Yoo, like most Korean men of his generation learned Chinese characters when he was young. So he was able to read and write quite a bit. The Korean pronunciation and grammar of these characters is completely different, so he isn't able to speak any Chinese. Thus, we made our way about by Fr. Yoo writing down where we wished to go and showing it to passersby who would point us in the right direction. One fellow was particularly kind and guided us the entire way. We also went to the huge local market and poked about for a bit. Fr. Yoo had made friends with the owner of a stationary store there, so we stopped to chat.
The university motto: Truth and Virtue meeting. Fr. Yoo explained that it meant East meeting West, in that Truth is considered to be the end in Eastern philosophy and Virtue the end in Western.


The wide variety of food offered at the student cafeteria.

Turtles for sale at the market, this time very much alive.



A friendly fellow who helped us find our way.
That night, being my last in China, we had a wonderful dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. After that, we walked down to the river where I had explored in the morning. I was shocked by the transformation. It had been nearly abandoned when I was there in the morning. But, we discovered, the riverside is the place to be on a Tuesday night in Yanji. There were vendors selling ice cream, a stage had been set up and a youth dance school were performing traditional Chinese folk dances, people roller skated everywhere, up a little further there was an area that had been cleared out and was full of about 50 middle aged couples dancing happily to music from a boom box. To my great delight, there was a group of about 6 men around my age with a group huddled round giving, from what I can tell, a rather poor impromptu break dance performance. The whole area was lit warmly with neon and everyone seemed in high spirits. Certainly different from my expectation of China.




Middle aged couples dancing.

A section of sidewalk that lit up when stepped one. Very popular  with the kiddos.

Breakdancing!
So now, gentle reader, if you have reached this far, I have probably bored you long enough. I just wish to leave one final thought. While eating dinner and talking with Fr. Yoo that last night, he told me the story of how in the early 80s, as a college student, he had been imprisoned for participating in the democracy movement in South Korea, which at the time was controlled by military dictatorship. He said  that for many people, the idea of peace between North and South Korea, or even development in China seem like absurd dreams. But he said for him, when he was born, there was no democracy. He reminded me that the battle for civil rights in my own country had taken place within my parents' lifetime. So much has changed, and is changing. We must not give up hope.

And so, as I arose early the next morning to bit farewell, at least for now, to China, now I bid farewell to you, hoping that you have given some thought to a small area of the world that might otherwise not have passed through your brain. Goodbye.

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