Skip to main content

This is it. The final installment of my South Korea blog posts with weird titles and bad metaphors has arrived. If you managed to follow me through all my blog posts (looking at you, Andrew Stoner), I thank you. If you decided to just read this one because you felt bad about not reading the others (despite my persistent Facebook posts), I guess I thank you, too.

Since I have been back in the states, I’ve received quite a few questions ranging from “What did you get me?” to “What do you miss about Korea?” So, I will now take the time to ignore the vast majority of these questions and instead, ask and answer some of my own questions that may help give some insight to my experience in the DukeEngage in South Korea program.

Did you reunify North and South Korea?

People leave notes on leaves and attach them to the tree of peace in the DMZ Museum.

No, I didn’t fix relations between North and South Korea. And no, I don’t have a plan for how to do so. I am not fully qualified to talk about the politics of this intricate topic, and to be honest, I didn’t learn about that as much as I should have. However, I do know that limiting the discussion to nuclear weapons, politics, and economics is not the answer. The media and societal perception of the North Korean people is that they are all brainwashed zombies of a dictatorial state. They are dehumanized, stripped of agency, and ostracized. Even when we discuss human rights abuses in the country, we limit them to the role of helpless victim. And yet, they find a way to survive a suffocating regime, dodge soldiers and human traffickers on the border of China, and endure life as a migrant. Who is to say they have no agency? Who is to say that they risk their lives and their families just to live off of welfare? They carry their grit, their curiosity, and their ambition. Politicians shouldn’t ignore these people when it comes to making policy, but they also shouldn’t simplify these people to be liabilities. But what do I know? I’m sure all of these politicians took the time to meet the people affected by their decisions.

So… what did you actually accomplish there?

Our time with the communities we served was very short in the grand scheme of things. Our interactions only consumed a tiny fraction of the lives of our students at Jiguchon and Urideul, so it is difficult to feel like we did something worthwhile. When Duke Engage Executive Director Dr. Eric Mlyn visited us in South Korea, he mentioned to us that the program does not work with certain vulnerable populations like children in orphanages, because short, temporary service could serve more harm than good to those populations. After seeing the tears on the children’s faces at Jiguchon on our last day there, I wondered if the same moral question could apply to our work.

We enjoyed our time at both schools with the students, and the students welcomed our presence in their classrooms. However, that joy brought forth difficult goodbyes. Some students got very attached, while other students were simply very young. Now that we are gone, how do they perceive our time together? Luckily, thanks to social media and technology, we are able to keep in contact with some of our students, but not everyone. I can say that we brought them joy and friendship, but it doesn’t feel like enough. Maybe some of them still remember the English we taught them. Maybe some of them are begging their teachers to play Simon Says or write them weird dialogues (“This song is LIT!”). It’s difficult to assess our impact, but I hope that they took away good memories like we did.

Here is a music video we made that captures some of the good memories:

Did the turtle reconnect with her nest?

My old neighborhood

My first blog post discussed my personal connection with this program and part of my reasons for coming to South Korea. I did reconnect with my family, some of whom I have only met as a baby before moving to America. My time with them in Korea seems surreal to say the least. Visiting South Korea has been a dream of mine since elementary school, and after years of seemingly empty promises to my grandparents to visit them, it finally happened. My own family could hardly believe it. Suddenly, I was presented with an alternate universe in which I never immigrated to the United States. I was an instant local celebrity bombarded with questions and neighbors eager to see the “baby who moved to America.” I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the attention.

DukeEngage didn’t just end up helping underserved communities. For me, DukeEngage was my way of reconnecting with a home in which I didn’t grow up. For as long as I can remember, people have always responded in shock when I told them that I had never been back to my home country. If it weren’t for this program, I would have had to wait even longer. Thank you, DukeEngage and its sponsors, for enabling me to have this experience and bringing me back home. Thank you for the summer to remember.