I think anyone who travels to a foreign country at some point asks the question, “Why am I here?” Perhaps they do not ask it in week two of a 40 week stay, but after 5 straight days of rain and three days of trying to arrange an internet connection with minimal Korean, I am asking.
The easy answer is that I have always wanted to live in another country, experience another culture, and the Fulbright program gave me that chance, complete with safety net. The Fulbright Program was established after World War II to promote international peace and understanding through academic exchanges and I am proud to continue that tradition in my small way. Rather than being a tourist, I get to be a productive member of South Korean society, supported by the U.S. State Department, the Korean American Educational Commission, and Pyeongtaek University.
My official duties are remarkably light. I teach one course this semester - Race and Gender in American Society - and I am currently setting up two study groups where students can meet with me once a week, talk about America and practice their English. Students are hungry for chances to speak English with a native speaker (though less hungry to ruin their GPA by actually taking my class!).
What I’m finding, however, is that my unofficial duty is to talk with people - to be a civilian American in South Korea. To listen when a faculty member takes the risk of speaking English to a stranger and tell them honestly that I understood every word. To share that Americans are even more afraid than Koreans to speak a foreign language with native speakers. To explain what Americans mean by “Asian” to people who have been controlled and invaded by China and Japan and thus do not see themselves as inherently similar to either.
Personally, my job is to experience - to simply experience. That is hard for a type A personality, always focused on the outcome, the product, the result. So I went to Seoul last weekend because I wanted to “check off” some of the places on my list of things to see - Namsangol’s Choson dynasty houses, Myeong-dong Catholic Cathedral, and Doksugun, one of 5 Royal palaces in the city. I walked a city of 9 million people (and far too many cars!) and gawked. Four lane highways packed with cars, twisting alleys full of shops, and everywhere, people breaking into English to help me find my way.
Other than a family from India and a couple from Germany, I was the only non-Asian I saw all day. Thousands of school children in identical uniforms, dozens of older men and women out walking in the rain, a few young couples (probably tourists from other Asian nations), but no single caucasian women. People stared openly until I greeted them with Annyeong Haseyo (hello) and then they broke into smiles and bowed. School children, male and female, giggled and practiced their English: “American?” “photo please!” “Good morning - how are you doing?”.
I realized that at least for some people that day I _was_ the experience. Even as I played tourist, my willingness to be stared at, to stop and speak English, to try speaking Korean - all mattered in a way I had never expected. I was told often before I left the United States ” to simply be open to the experience. It is not what you accomplish there, it is who you are that matters.” So I am being me. For the moment, that is why I am here.
3 comments September 5, 2007