Stepping into Incheon Airport was low-key terrifying.
Five of us had arrived at the same time, with me being the sole Korean speaker, and our first task was to make it through immigration before meeting up with our Korean professor who was waiting to collect us. I was immediately separated from the group, as I was a Korean citizen, and underwent a different procedure to enter the country. Surrounded by native Koreans who likely lived in the country for a significant portion of their lives, I felt like an imposter. I didn’t know what I was doing.
From the start, I was encouraged to take a more leading role in helping guide my group through Korea, despite me not having ever visited the country (minus the first 6 months of my life). I was thankful for Jea and Peining, two members of our group who spoke Korean and had visited/lived in Korea in the recent past, for being people I could lean on for support when I felt less than confident in my language abilities. But even with three-and-a-half Korean speakers (Brandon had great marks in Korean 102), there were many moments when we felt lost.
Like when we couldn’t find a restaurant because it actually didn’t exist anymore. Or when a pastor walked up to our lunch table at the Institute for Unification Education (IUE) and started talking to us in Korean, but I was left to cover the translations (thanks Jea). And the time when we couldn’t find a place to eat our beloved fried chicken, so we ended up eating on the floor of a rubber playground among screaming children.
However, as we explored more of Seoul, both by feet and by subway, we quickly grew familiar with our surroundings. We can easily recall at least three convenience stores nearby our guesthouse, our non-Korean speakers are quickly learning the Korean alphabet and useful words and phrases, and we are becoming accustomed to differences in societal norms between the US and South Korea. Moreover, our intensive time at the IUE helped guide our goals for this program, and gave us an intimate perspective on the importance of reunification for the two Koreas. Especially since we will be working with North Korean refugees in the latter half of our program, and given the current dynamic relations between the Koreas, it is imperative to be well aware of the intricacies of this issue.
Tomorrow, we will be teaching our first English class to 5th and 6th graders at the Jiguchon (지구촌) School. I guarantee that there will be countless more moments where we (as well as the students) will feel lost and confused. As we aim to get to know these kids over the few short weeks we have with them, I hope to focus on understanding, both their words and their backgrounds, and not let things get lost in translation.