Why I am here

September 5, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno

The American Studies DepartmentI 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.

Doksugun Palace in SeoulMy 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!).

Myeong-dong Cathedral and woman in hanbokWhat 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.

School girls at Namsangol VillageOther 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.

Entry Filed under: Teaching, University, Culture

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Paul Calzada  |  September 5, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. Teaching in Japan. Exactly the same experience, and you put it as well as I’ve heard it. I’ve known people who couldn’t deal with constantly feeling like they’re on display, and left as soon as it could be arranged. But those who stick it out learn a lot about what it’s like to be the Other. As you’ve seen, people are curious simply because you present an experience that is not at all common for them. They don’t mean any harm at all. They just haven’t had the opportunity to meet a person like you before, nor you them, so moments of awkwardness and self-consciousness are inevitable, but, given enough time, both sides learn how to live with each other. I wish more people could and would see how important it is to interact this way!

  • 2. Lorne Fienberg  |  September 10, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    I am still hoping that the next blog entry will be entitled “Food.” And that there will be pictures. I won’t be there with you until you tell us what you are eating (and what you are afraid to eat).

    We missed you sorely at the Humanities Council on Friday. They served chicken salad wraps with spicy potato chips and iced tea.


  • 3. Amanda Cruz  |  September 11, 2007 at 1:03 am

    I remember your US history class fondly and I enjoyed reading your entries about South Korea. I have been living in Daegu, Korea for the past three years and I can relate to many of your comments. I attended a course at Keimyung University in Daegu and enjoy learning about the culture. If you get a chance, please contact me via e-mail as I am frequently in your area.

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