Sunday, March 22, 2015

People are more impactful than places: a "site visit" story

We were lucky enough to have a lot of really interesting site visits this trip. The visit to the DMZ in particular was totally surreal. You read about the conflict between North and South Korea, and admittedly in the US Kim Jong Un is more of a joke than anything else. And there we found ourselves, visiting what is essentially a physical manifestation of the divide between those two countries. Seeing the “propaganda towns” was insane to me. When I was looking at them through the telescope at the DMZ, the theme song to the Twilight Zone was totally playing in my head. However interesting our time in the DMZ was, nothing had a greater impact on me this trip than having the opportunity to listen to North Korean refugees speak later that day.

Before this class, my knowledge of east Asian politics was slim to none. In certain contexts I find it interesting, but I’ve always felt pretty disconnected from the political issues in that region. We’ve talked a lot about the social and economic differences between North and South Korea, and it really is astounding how countries rooted in the same culture and geographically on top of one another came to divide into seemingly two separate universes. The DMZ trip was obviously fascinating for that reason, but putting faces and voices to the issues we’ve talked about for so long drove it home for me. It’s one thing to learn about the broader concepts, it’s another to hear about their implications from those who have lived them as a reality. I was absolutely amazed by their bravery and their poise as they described the struggles they endured as North Korean refugees. What they had witnessed in their lifetime was something I don’t think any American could start to fully grasp.

In addition to the obvious bravery that comes with escaping from North Korea, I so admired their willingness to stand up and speak in English to us even though it was their second or third language. Attempting to learn and speak a foreign language you haven’t been raised with is really putting yourself out there. As English-speaking Americans we’re kind of used to everyone at least knowing a little bit of our first language, I really think we should appreciate that more. I could tell one of the refugees in particular was struggling a little bit with understanding everything being said and fully communicating her ideas to us. But I could see it in her face how hard she was working to sort through what we were saying and figure everything out, I could tell how determined she was. Given everything these people described to us about their lives in North Korea, I know it must seem a little odd how much emphasis I’m putting on them learning English. But what I’m trying to say is I think this was really representative of the drive to make their lives better for themselves, the same drive that probably got them out of North Korea in the first place. I left that discussion wanting to be a better person.

I usually am pretty quiet in those types of situations, but I had to go up and shake their hands afterwards and tell them how brave I thought they were. Site visits are really valuable and informational, but it’s discussions like that that I think really give you an opportunity to learn and grow when you’re abroad.

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