Cultural exchange and lessons in Korea
After a semester in Jordan, I was scared to go to Korea. Even though I worked in Daejeon, Korea for six weeks last summer I just wanted to go back to the Middle East. My second family is in Jordan, I learned Arabic there (well…to some extent) and, despite regularly being out of my comfort zone, it is home to me. I bet everyone on my new program is sick of hearing me say “In Jordan... blah blah blah.” Jordan has a permanent place in my heart, and I wasn’t sure if there was room for Korea (since obviously America takes up a HUGE chunk of my heart too).
Even though I have only been in Seoul for two weeks, I know by the end of this semester I am going to have just as hard a time leaving here as I did leaving Jordan. I can’t even describe how different Jordan and Korea are because I am still just beginning to wrap my head around it. That may sound silly, but in Jordan I had come to the conclusion that people are the same everywhere; we eat, love our family, make relationships and, most importantly, we all laugh. Culture is just a medium we use to achieve these basic human needs.
It is really easy to reach this conclusion after traveling for a while. Everyone is super nice to me because I am a foreigner (mega bonus points for being a young American white female), they give me food and ask me questions, which results in these amazing meaningful exchanges. I felt a sense of oneness among human beings. But look around the world today: we are nowhere near oneness and this frustrated me beyond belief. How is it that after thousands of years we haven’t realized we are all the same? After my first week here in Korea I found the answer: culture defines us far more than I imagined.
Culture is an ephemeral concept. As a result I thought it could be transcended; I thought that I could bust through the cultural barrier and then I would really get to know people. But you can't understand a person without understanding their culture. The values each person holds impacts their behavior, attitude, actions, inactions, speech; everything about our lives is influenced heavily by culture without anyone even realizing it. From the most trivial things such as crossing your legs, to deeply ingrained beliefs like the role of the individual in society, we are, in so many ways, products of our surroundings.
Cross-cultural communication can range from comical to offensive to frustrating, but most importantly, it can lead to understanding. I have experienced that people will more than meet you halfway if you put in the effort to learn and interact with their culture. Another important part of studying abroad for me is promoting a positive American image. Taking the time to understand a different attitude shows Americans aren’t only what people see in the movies (since that is the only level of exposure for many) and makes communicating infinitely easier (how you phrase things, what questions are acceptable, appropriate gestures, when to be quiet, etc.).
I certainly don’t agree with all of the values other cultures hold, for instance racism. But now when I encounter someone that is different from me, I can try to understand the environment this person grew up in and try to act accordingly. It is by no means easy and something I still seriously struggle with. To use racism again, how can I be friends with such blatant racists? But at the same time, how can I hold what they were taught against them? I don’t know what the answer is, but I am trying my hardest to continually develop my world understanding.
In Korea so far, I have learned Confucian values guide the culture heavily; harmony is of the utmost importance. It seems to be working to me. On my first day here I watched as a 12-year-old girl found 5,000 won on the ground (about five dollars) and ran two blocks in the opposite direction to find who had dropped it. We went to a Buddhist temple up in the mountains (Korea is 78 percent mountains) and participated in the evening service. It was impossible to feel anything but peaceful listening to the chanting monks. One of my favorite stories though came from a doctor giving us a talk on our health. His grandfather had been deported during the brutal Japanese colonial period (1910 – 1945) because he had refused to let the school he had built bow to the Japanese Shinto shrine. After World War II he was given one of the highest honors by the Korean government, and returned to the school only to find the Shinto shrine there. He immediately ordered the shrine to be torn down and that a toilet be put on that site.
Koreans say the world has a way of righting itself. Korea is the only country that used to be the recipient of Peace Corp volunteers that now has a Korean equivalent and sends its own volunteers. From the utter devastation of the Korean War to the booming success of the technology industry, Korea is truly a Cinderella story. At the heart of Korea’s achievements is its people. This is an amazing, different country and it is going to be an amazing, different semester.