Finding the Bridges

By Debbie Sue Gabrielsen

"Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends." - Maya Angelou

            Impressions of Korea fall upon me like the rain that greeted us and bid us farewell. The people we met were hospitable and friendly, the culture dense and rich and the ancient technology sophisticated. Families are all important, older people are honored, respected and obeyed. Deep convictions inform life choices, attitudes and actions. Students are serious, often studying until 10 pm or midnight. Korean movies are funny and moving. The excitement, colors and energy of Seoul, the lush and cruel beauty of Jeju Island, the elaborate temples, the stark simplicity and deep devotion of the temple stay; all this and more comes to mind. Our schedule was fluid, changing depending on circumstances. I saw and experienced much and will take a long time to fully disseminate and appreciate how I am changing.

            During the trip, I felt afloat. I took comfort in the familiar - a routine, American breakfast food at the hotel and writing emails home to stay connected with my family. I felt better able to embrace the newness when grounded in something known. I need to bring familiar things into my classroom, so students can relax and be open to learn. Displaying photos, the fan painted with Korean calligraphy and cooking a Korean dish can be a start. I need to be attentive to students’ needs to incorporate artifacts that will be efficacious.

            This 14-day trip was an introduction to Korean culture. I am more aware of how it feels to be surrounded by the unfamiliar. I have a beginning understanding of how Korean customs are different from Western customs. The needs of the group take precedence over individual’s needs. The Sejong leaders meticulously planned our trip to maximize learning and exposure to many aspects of Korean culture. We had a more complete experience than if we were allowed to choose many details of our trip. Showing and giving respect is a vital part of daily life. While not an expert after one trip, I am more sensitive to cultural distinctions and its ramifications.

Some of the trip’s highlights are the cooking lesson, the home stay and the temple stay. The temple stay was the hardest part of the trip for me. The bugs, simple food, sleeping on mats smelling of other people, and lack of sleep was juxtaposed with an explosion on my senses: the vivid colors of the pre-dawn temple service, the monks’ sonorous chanting and humble, honest faith, the grand mountains, gurgling, peaceful stream and quiet tree-lined paths. I was glad the temple stay was part of our trip. It was exhausting, memorable and special and powerfully introduced me to an important part of Korean culture.

            When I think on the trip, I always come back to the people. My home stay family, who opened their home and hearts to strangers, the .5 group from Onnuri Church, who welcomed us with a banquet, flower garlands, gifts and love, the tour members, many of whom I got to know, surprised I felt so comfortable and happy in their presence, our local guides, determined we would see as much as possible, hustling our slow moving group from one beauty to the next, the Sook Myong Girls Middle and High School students and Jeon Nam University students, anxious to show us the best hospitality they could, and our leaders, who worked unflaggingly to sure up details and guide us into a deeper understanding of what culture is and how it affects us. The bonds formed represent a key goal of the trip: to know we are not so different, we can find bridges between our differences while celebrating and respecting diversity, and that love, growing understanding, respect and willingness twine together to form the bridge.