What will my place look like? What kind of students will I teach? How will my coworkers and superiors act towards me? How will I make friends? What kind of food will be available? Where will I attend church? How difficult will the language barrier be? Each of these mentioned uncertainties, among others, are enough to invoke fear in those who are afraid of the unknown, but I seem to always embrace it with excitement. What if I taste the best thing that I have ever eaten? What if I make several life long friends? What if I fall in love? What if I come to a greater understanding of who I am as an American of Korean Descent?
I will start with the question, "What will my place look like?" My apartment is a shoebox. It is smaller than those of most of my friends, but I have made the most of it, and have made it comfortable. I live in a beautiful area of Gwangju, called Pungam Dong, and a lake is around 200 yards from my house, as is a large mountain. The Gwangju landscape is marked with countless high rise apartments. The buildings themselves are not that beautiful, but the combination of them, and a sea of mountains make for a breathtakingly gorgeous landscape.
At night, on the lake that is near my apartment, the wind always seems to cease, and the water becomes as smooth as glass. When the windows on the apartments light up, the countless neon signs that mark the businesses nearby are lit, and when the headlights are activated on the cars that drive on the busy road that runs along the shore of the lake, they all reflect on the smooth water. The reflection of the impressive mountains compliment that of the lights and the buildings, and it is an incredible thing to see. I don't have any pictures, because I am not a great photographer, and none of the pictures that I could ever take would ever do it justice. I love taking walks at nights along the lake. It's one of my favorite things about Gwangju. It was along the banks of that lake that I fell in love with Tae Hee.
Regarding the question, "What if I fall in love?" It happened. Tae Hee was the prettiest girl that I had ever been with, and I still say that every moment that I spent with her was among the best moments of my life, and I know that at the time, she felt the same way. Regarding her, someone wiser than me told me, "It was definitely love, but it wasn't perfect love, which is why it didn't last." Too many factors came between us, and "the stars didn't align." I was left broken hearted, because it was nothing more than a fling. I learned numerous lessons from being with her that will serve me well for the rest of my life, and I could write another post about that, but I would like to keep those to myself. I had two flings, both being with Korean women, while in Korea. They were both incredible, and I regret neither of them.
Regarding the question, "What kind of children will I teach?" My students have been incredible, and I find that I miss them after being away from work for only a week. While researching Korea when I first started looking for jobs, I read about how spoiled and pampered some Korean children can be. In my case, I have never experienced that. They are significantly less spoiled than American children, as they take pleasure in simpler things. On their birthdays, many of them merely receive new school supplies, and they always seem ecstatic to receive them. Many of them don't receive Christmas gifts. The reason they aren't as spoiled is not because they expect less in terms of material things, and it's also not because their parents draw less of an income. The students at my school come from fairly affluent families. They are less spoiled because they have a stronger work ethic, and more is expected of them.
On the other hand, I feel bad for them, because many of them have less of an opportunity to be children, and simply play. Even the elementary students do hours of homework, and have to go to school on Saturdays. While American parents are paying for their children to go to baseball practice, and dance class, Korean parents pay for their children to go to English academy, and Math academy, which most of the time, have a more intense curriculum than their regular schools.
Nevertheless, my students are extremely clever, as even my lower level students are able to speak and coherently express intelligent thoughts in English. My upper level students are, for the most part, fluent. Korean children are enthusiastic, fun, and are generally respectful to authority. As a whole, they are extremely funny, as they always seem to provide me with something to laugh at everyday, and they are always able to have a way to make my day better. If fatherhood is similar to teaching these wonderful children, it's definitely something that I am looking forward to.
Regarding, "How will I make friends?" My friends, both Korean and foreign, are another thing that has made my experience so incredible. I was blessed to have such wonderful coworkers. When I first started at my school, I was the only American on staff. Kirk was Australian, Tal was Canadian, and Maggie was from England. Tal left suddenly, then Mae was her temporary replacement, and Kelsey replaced Mae. It didn't seem like a long time before it was time for Maggie and Kirk to return to their respective countries in the beginning of March. The goodbyes were definitely tearful, but I am blessed that wonderful people were hired to replace them. Currently, the foreign staff at my school is all American, and consists of Kelsey, Phil, Kezzia, and I.
In Korea being that people work in one-year increments, unfortunately, good people come and go. I've seen it happen at my workplace, and at my church. That can be difficult. I was blessed to see two wonderful friends, Sara (pronounced Sahra) and Carolyn, off at the bus station, as I was the last person to say goodbye to them at Gwangju. Both were emotional experiences. We've had numerous tearful goodbyes at my church, and that doesn't surprise me, because both Koreans and foreigners here have been incredibly welcoming and inclusive.
As my coworker, Kelsey, explained, I now know what it's like to be a minority, and as such, it is essential to have a community of people that you can turn to for support. And if the people that are a part of our community were all a part of a majority, we may not have enough in common to be friends, but as a minority, sometimes nationality is enough to bring people together. I've certainly made some wonderful friendships that will definitely last a lifetime. I now know how my mother feels as a Korean living in America, as she is definitely a part of a network of Korean friends here in New Orleans.
Regarding, "What if I come to a greater understanding of who I am as a Korean American?" That's difficult to explain. On the contrary, I have become a more self-aware American, and I am proud to be one, but throughout my time in Korea, I felt strangely at home. I've said numerous times that I've never experienced the culture shock that my other western friends have experienced, because I've experienced Korean culture throughout my life in my home. I have come to a greater understanding of my mother, and her emphasis on education, which was a source of resentment growing up. I now understand why she was so adamant about me working so hard, because that seems to be an emphasis of all Korean parents. I am now grateful for how hard she pushed me.
Have I come to a greater understanding of who I am as a Korean American? I would say definitely, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how. Whenever I tell Korean ladies that I meet, "Omhaga Hanguk saram (My mother is Korean)," their opinion of me always seems to favorably increase. In my first year in Korea, I've definitely developed a stronger pride in being of Korean descent. I've definitely developed more of an understanding about what makes Koreans who they are, and unfortunately western culture has had such a large influence on their society. Some of my students tell me that they don't like kimchi, and that their favorite foods are hamburgers, and pizza. Many Korean women get plastic surgery to enlarge their eyes and noses in order to look more western. It annoys me when Mcdonald's and Pizza Hut take over all that is local, and that which provides variety.
Obviously, I am not completely satisfied with my understanding, because if I were, I would not be returning for another year. With that being said, my time in Korea has been amazing, and it has thus far been among the best years of my life. I tell people all the time that, in Korea, time has gone by so fast, and I've had so much fun, so why not stay for another year?
I look forward to seeing more of Korea, and understanding the culture more. I look forward to becoming a better teacher and leader. I look forward to trying new foods. I look forward to touring other parts of Asia. I look forward to making more Korean friends, and becoming closer to the ones that I have already befriended. I look forward to meeting new western friends that I otherwise would have never met had I not come here. I look forward to more meaningful relationships. I look forward to coming to yet an even greater understanding of who I am as a Korean American. I am excited about what this next year holds.