Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Being a foreigner in Mokpo is quite the experience.  From what I’ve heard, we are only 2 of about 100 or so English speaking foreigners in the city at any given time.  Mokpo has about 250-300,000 people.  So we’re a bit of an oddity.

While we’ve found plenty of other Westerners to hang out with thanks to Facebook, I have yet to see another non-Asian just by chance while walking on the street.  We get stopped by people, mostly children, who want to say Hello or know where we’re from.  They’ll follow us for a little while or just giggle on their merry way.  It’s cute and I imagine in time might become annoying, but it’s never menacing.  I actually feel safer here than I did in Chicago.

In our few days here, we’ve been interviewing potential students for our school’s new program.  Most kids are eager to share what they know, while some clam up and require extra coaxing to speak.  Late one day, we were interviewing our last kid, but getting him to say anything in English was a futile effort.  I reviewed book exercises with him while his mom barked orders in Korean from the sidelines.

This setup wasn’t working, so our manager tried to test him in Korean while we sat nearby.  He then said something which was translated to us as “I’m afraid of foreigners.”  The American in me wanted to shoot back, “Why, cuz I’m different!” and place a call to some sort of minority help group, but I was too taken aback to say anything at all.  Steve made some joke that got him to laugh, but he still never said a word in English.

I kind of felt bad for the kid.  The children in Mokpo lead pretty sheltered lives.  A lot of schoolwork, little play time, and almost no interaction with diversity.  Yes, I know most of the world doesn’t grow up in the salad bowl that is America, but the degree to which the children are different surprised me in that moment.  No one has ever said they were afraid of me before.  I mean, really, afraid of me?

In a strange way it also gave me a new pride in my heritage, a feeling I’ve not been accustomed to in recent years.  So many times in America it seems that we’ll all just never get along.  White, Black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern.  But I realized that even with all of the tensions, the one thing we are is used to each other.  Whether we like each other or not, we are at least familiar with everyone else’s culture.

I am happy to share a different way of life with this child and others, but I also hope that they’ll eventually experience some diversity for themselves.  And on the flip side it’s good for me, too.  To not be in the majority for once.