This week was as much of an educational whirlwind as it was a culture shock. It all started when I took my first step off of the plane and into Korea. Darting my gaze from wall to wall, I marveled at the reality of where I was. All my preparation had let up to this moment, and I could not have been more excited. Therefore, I grabbed my suitcase from baggage claim and headed out the door into a world of opportunity and growth.
The first two days went by in a blur. The majority of my time was spent exploring the city I would now call home. As I walked from street to street, I slowly realized what feeling like an outsider was truly like. I caught strangers glancing over and store clerks mumbling. As I looked out into the crowds, none of the faces looked quite like me. A lonesomeness soon arose from my stomach and replaced my excitement with anxiety. Tuesday night, I found myself pondering whether or not this whole situation was overambitious. Before falling asleep, I dismissed these thoughts from my mind and remembered the tremendous opportunity that I have been presented.
I woke up the next morning and immediately headed out into the streets for breakfast. Thankfully, my wonder and curiosity had crept back into my subconscious. I acknowledged that my face looked a bit different than the majority of the people, but that was OK. If anything, this challenge would bring about the level of discomfort that inspired me to apply for the program in the first place.
The next day came with our first group event: a retreat to The Institute for Unification and Education. At the center, we were graciously afforded the opportunity to attend private classes taught by renowned academics in the Korean educational realm. Along with discussing the difficulties and logical routes for unification of the DPRK and ROK, we were given the chance to take part in a Q and A session with an actual North Korean refugee. The topics of the questions ranged from life in the DPRK to his thoughts on United States foreign policy under the Trump administration.
As fascinating as every one of his responses were, I was especially moved by his description of how he chose to file for refugee status in South Korea over the United States. He described an encounter he had with a fellow refugee in Thailand who had chosen to attempt resettlement in the United States and had now waited over a year and a half. Although I cannot recall the exact words, he explained that when he looked at this man he saw someone who was emotionally and mentally broken down. As this story rang throughout my mind, the systematically flawed refugee process that I had spent a semester learning about became real. It is one thing to critique a system from afar but when I looked into the face of this man, a whole new level of disgust for our government’s lack of compassion took shape within me. I am positive that this emotion will remain with me and inspire my work in the upcoming weeks.