This last week full week in Seoul was very eventful. We had our last week at Mulmangcho, and we went to Busan for the weekend.
If you’ve followed the group blog or any of our personal blogs, then it was pretty clear that we had a very emotional and difficult time saying goodbye to our students from Jiguchon, the first school we taught at a month ago. We felt like we had done at least something to impact their lives, but we wished we had more time with them or that somehow they would remember us in the long run. It’s safe to say that our goodbye from Mulmangcho was just as, if not more, emotional and difficult than that of Jiguchon. At Mulmangcho, we essentially lived with the students. We lived in a different building, but we ate all of our meals together and spent all day with them. At Jiguchon, we spent about 5 hours a day Monday through Friday with them. So, naturally, our separation from Mulmangcho students was bound to be even more difficult.
Personally, I felt guilty leaving. Some of the students were our age, and we spent our days and nights talking to them as friends would. Thus, when we had to leave it was as if we were leaving them behind. These students are bored out of their minds all the time because of how rural Yeoju is. While we would leave to go to Busan, Seoul, the United States, they would stay there and continue with the same daily schedule they’ve had for weeks, months, even years. They just study all day and night for their exams and see and talk to the same people every day.
When talking to one of our group members, we both felt like we wanted to cry as we rode in our taxis away from the school. While walking around in Busan that same Friday, I couldn’t help but think about how much the students our age would enjoy taking this weekend trip and spending it with us. I couldn’t help but think about how if it weren’t for the unfortunate situation of having been born in a country that didn’t have the same liberties and opportunities as the US and South Korea, they now couldn’t enjoy themselves in the same way that most people their age were enjoying themselves in the same country they were in. They were living in South Korea, but they weren’t living as South Koreans yet.
Even though leaving Mulmangcho was harder than Jiguchon, there is a positive with Mulmangcho that is different from Jiguchon. That difference is that the students we spent time with at Mulmangcho are also our friends. At Jiguchon, the oldest students were 14 and in 6th grade whereas at Mulmangcho the students we spent most of our time with were 16 and up, so we are Facebook friends and Kakaotalk friends and can keep in contact with them in a way that we never could with Jiguchon students. Thankfully, this means the separation from Mulmangcho- while painful- is not necessarily permanent.
After having left Mulmangcho on Friday, we went to Busan for the weekend. We visited several museums and Busan Tower. Busan can basically be considered the second most famous city in South Korea after Seoul, but it has a different vibe and narrative than Seoul. While Seoul is considered one of the most modern technologically advanced cities in the world- like most famous major cities it is very hectic and fast-paced, one of our group members described Busan as Seoul’s chill older brother. Busan has none of the pressure Seoul has to be a competitive capital city, and so is able to develop comfortably. More so than that, Busan was the only place to not be taken over during the Korean War. When Seoul was taken by the North Korean army in the early 1950s, Busan became South Korea’s provisional capital. It remains untouched by the war physically, but much of its narrative is based off of its important role during the war. After having gone through this program learning more deeply about the North-South conflict and its history, going to Busan seemed like the perfect way to feed and nourish all the information with the actual environment where it all culminated. We were able to see where refugees of the war actually lived when we went to Gamcheon Cultural Village, where refugees found work at the Gukje Market, and even visit Syngman Rhee’s home during his time in exile.
One such example of this culmination was going to the International Market and finding the store that 국제시장 (reads Gukje Market but English title is Ode to my Father) the movie based itself off of. In the movie, the main character is a refugee of Hungnam, North Korea that comes during the war and works at his aunt’s spice store in the Busan International Market. As the main character grows old so the market develops, and the store in the movie is an actual store in real life that we were able to find and browse through its products. It was incredibly meaningful for all of us to walk through the streets which we have seen so many movies and videos and read/heard so much about through several mediums.
Now with just two days left, we are wrapping up our thoughts and thinking about our experience as a whole on this program. It is definitely a bittersweet ending.
I’m sure many, maybe all, of us have had their feelings about this program change from the moment we applied to the second we stepped foot in the Incheon Airport. Maybe those feelings are changing even now as we step back and look at the program from away and process what we weren’t able to in the moment.
There’s no denying that we’ve grown from the things that we’ve seen, learned, experienced in the past two months. Our view of the multicultural and North Korean children has evolved from faceless victims we read about on paper to individuals with defined personalities and aspirations. We’ve encountered the behaviors of these children that make them quite different, but also very similar, to the children we’ve encountered throughout our lives and listened to the stories that these behavior differences stem from. We’ve witnessed the work that is already being done for these children and have dreamt for ways they could be helped even more, and also dreamt about their futures.
From the children, we’ve learned patience in understanding that sometimes when they run our patience thin, it is not a statement of poor character but simply a difference in the expectations of discipline that both parties have had. From the older students, university North Korean refugees, and POWs listening to their stories becoming more real to us, we became more sympathetic to the stories of those we have never been able to relate to before. And throughout the entire program, both with the English teaching and the educational trips (Comfort Women, DMZ), I think we all grew to have compassion for the issues that were exposed to us.
We’ve immersed ourselves in a new traditional history and modern culture, discovered the difference in value of preparedness versus actual experience (such as, which games you plan for will actually work in a room of twenty elementary students), valued the friendships that have found us in Jiguchon and Mulmangcho, and delved into the complexity of the issue that is multiculturalism and North Koreans in South Korea.
To be honest, none of us know when the next time we’ll be directly be working within North Korean or multicultural affairs in South Korea again. But we do know that these experiences will never leave us as long as we apply it to the places we can. The passions that are already with some of us – human rights, international affairs, local Durham issues – do not have to be detached but instead be enriched by the summer that we lived in South Korea.
Thank you to the people who made this program possible, both at Duke and in South Korea, thank you to the two professors Kim Hae-Young and Kim EunYoung who took care of us so well, thank you to the team for working hard together in the compact two months, thank you for reading our blog and commenting, encouraging us along the way! We’re thankful for every interaction that we’ve had through this DukeEngage South Korea ’16.