It has been quite the week for the DukeEngagers in South Korea. One word that I would use to describe my overall experience so far would be surreal.
Beginning from my arrival at Incheon Airport, the experience of being in a vastly different land was very surreal for me. Although I speak a little bit of Korean and can read enough to make my way around Seoul alone, it was still a very humbling experience to come to a country where I have much to learn about the culture and even transportation. The biggest challenge has seriously just been learning how to navigate around the subway routes in Seoul. I had learned about transferring lines and seen maps of the highly efficient subway lines of Seoul, but it is a completely different monster in person.
Although we didn’t start teaching the first week, we did visit the government sponsored Reunification Education Center. The whole experience was extremely interesting, but what captivated me was the field trip to the Dorasan Station, a train station that used to connect North and South Korea. Everything was extremely empty and it was essentially like visiting a ghost town. One thing that really caught my attention was a small framed book named “The Tales of Kim Jong-Il”. It was the first item that made me realize that the information that we have been told about North Korea is actually true. I am currently living in a country that is bordered by North Korea, a country known for its heinous human rights abuses and its totalitarian ruler who is constantly in the American media.
Perhaps the most surreal experience of the whole trip was when we visited the Odusan Observatory, which had binoculars to observe a small rural community in North Korea. The tour guide informed us that the people we were looking at were actually actors, and North Korea had built these buildings and farms so that the country would appear like a functioning society. The proof for this strong claim was that at night, there would be no lights appearing in the buildings that these farmers supposedly lived in. In that moment, I felt that I was just a bystander looking at animals in a zoo. It is so strange to me that North Korea would hire actors to maintain a front that the rest of the world knows is untrue.
Aside from learning about North Korea and exploring Seoul, my biggest (negative) highlight was eating some soybeans. I have severe allergies to soybeans and peanuts, so I planned to be extremely careful when coming here, but I still was unable to avoid these beans even in my first week. The culprit was delicious soy garlic flavored Korean fried chicken, which I had eaten in the states before. Unfortunately, there must have been some soybeans present in the wings, and after my delicious binge, I had a few unfun hours of hives and heavy breathing.
Tomorrow is the first day that I’ll start teaching English, and I’m both nervous and excited to test how well I’ll be able to communicate with only a bit of a shared common language. I’ll only have one week with these students, so I’m trying to just maintain a positive attitude and keeping in mind that a victory will not necessarily be a classroom of fluent English speakers.