The final week:
We basically lived on a charter bus. We criss-crossed through the Korean countryside stopping along the way at temples and other points of interest. It was great to have quality time with the people I’d had some of the best experiences of my life with. We had a final dinner with the governor and administrators but other than spending the day at Korean’s indoor version of DisneyLand (LotteWorld), what still sticks out in my mind after 3 months is our last night in Seoul. Several of our co-teachers travelled up to show us around and see us off. Our camp spent the last night together; one of the most memorable nights of my life. It wasn’t the places we went or the things we saw, just all of us, probably around 30, hanging out in a crazy city and realizing we’d never all be in the same place again. Our Korean friends found a restaurant that would seat us all and we enjoyed plates of Korean BBQ, and lots of Soju and Cass. We karaoked and club hopped…It’s something I can’t explain. We were all in marathon mode working with no sleep and lots of excitement. We eventually made our way back to the hotel and somehow everyone ended up in Jennifer and my room. We probably had 15-20 people crammed into every corner and space possible of our downtown hotel room…magic. One hour of sleep sufficed for my 36 hr journey back to Middle America.
My one woman adventure in Seoul:
It was probably the fact that I couldn’t read any of the signage, but I found it impossible to see any trace of a subway station. Every other city I’ve been to in the world, there’s some sort of emblem or symbol for the subway that’s visible no matter what language you speak. The last day, I decided to brave the subway solo from some unknown place in the city to our hotel. Some of the girls were going back to pick up some prescription glasses they’d ordered and the rest of the crew was sticking around to shop, etc. I left with nothing more than a few thousand won and a piece of paper with 3 lines of directions…no phone or any way of telling time, not even the address to the hotel. The journey took me about 1 1/2 hrs. I started walking towards what looked like the right way, somehow found myself on Seoul’s version of 5th Ave with Louis Vuitton and Prada aplenty. I walked and walked and no indication of train to be found. Seoul, however is known for an underground labyrinth of parking garages and markets of all kinds. I ducked into one, hoping to find a subway platform but instead became more lost as the tunnels winded. I finally saw a sign that looked promising and after more winding, found myself on the platform. I found a map, and navigated the 2-3 transfers I had to make to reach my destination. The carriages seemed like the most crowded ones I’d been on. I somehow made it to the hotel lobby at 6 and had time to spare to shower before our camp dinner. The experience topped my list of adventures getting lost in a foreign land.
I have a much better understanding of Korean & Asian culture in general but I’m not so ignorant as to think I know everything. Although we were working closely with Koreans, we were pretty insulated from the outside world. We spent half of our time on an island, unable to interact with anyone outside our group. The things I did come to understand were the fundamental differences between my American mindset and those of my Korean friends. I’m an individual in every way possible; I’m independent and as an American, I place a lot of value on this idea. Koreans are basically the opposite in every way. Every decision is made after first considering how it will affect the group as a whole; they’re collectivists. In my opinion, neither way is better. What would be better is if one could somehow strike a balance between the two.
In our camps, the importance of respect for hierarchy became increasingly evident. Every piece of information seemed to go through a chain of command. Its amazing how a group of people can almost instinctively align themselves in such a way. Americans aren’t hesitant about voicing their concerns and opinions with anyone, even the “higher-ups”; in Korea this would be one of the most disrespectful things to do. I’m not a naturally opinionated person but at times, its hard for me to do something that I totally disagree with. I had to remind myself a few times that it just didn’t matter; respect was more important than what I thought was right.
One of the most frustrating times:
One of the group activities one night was a movie. The administrators told us in our daily staff meeting that only a few of us needed to be there to keep everyone quiet. The rest of us decided to venture out on a hike into the mountains that we had only seen from our classroom windows. We only had a few days left at camp and wanted to take advantage of our surroundings. So we left and had a great time. We got back to camp later, thinking everything was fine. Soon we heard from our Korean co-teachers that the administrators had a meeting with them explaining how frustrated and disrespected they felt. The Americans were confused as to why it became a big deal. We were all called into a meeting later that night. There we all sat, about 25 of us, listening to the administrators try to explain to us in broken English what we had done wrong. Apparently we should have known we weren’t allowed to leave, we should have had some sort of worksheet for the kids to do after the movie, and we should have made them go back to homeroom since the movie ended before homeroom would have. They threatened the Koreans with punishment and us with bringing in new teachers from some unknown locale to finish the camp. Everyone was genuinely apologetic but I realized my American mindset didn’t allow me to understand the issue. I took a step back and realized it was about more than us leaving on a 2 hour hike. Once, I let myself understand that, I wasn’t upset.
All of that being said, I found that everyone I came in contact with were the most genuine and hospitable people. I grew to appreciate our differences and realized that we all want the same things as cliche as that is.
Updates about our Wando family reunion coming soon. 🙂