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.