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The Seoul of Service

Written by Courtney Clemente

MLK scholar Jared Azuma '09, Hanyang University student Uido Intention Kim, and MLK scholar Brian Saa '08 with a child at Pearl S. Buck International-

The Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar Program at Ithaca College offers students a chance to broaden their cultural perspective and experience global service by traveling internationally.

As a sophomore MLK scholar, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Seoul, South Korea, where we explored South Korean culture and examined the concept of race outside of the Western ideological philosophy.

There were times in Seoul when I felt like I was from another planet. Trying to order dinner or find our way around the city proved nearly impossible without the help of an English-speaking Korean. Some cultural traditions and customs were also foreign to us, like the sexism that still prevails in Korean society. The girls’ dorm had a strict curfew of 12:30 a.m., while the boys had none.

Although the language, customs, and food took some adjusting to, there were some simple things that connected us with the people we met. The values of service, human rights, and racial equality exceeded our cultural differences and highlighted the ways in which we are all alike.

Being a racial minority in South Korea is fairly uncommon because it is one of the most racially homogenous countries in the world. As we soon discovered, the lives of those who are not of South Korean descent, or who are of mixed race, are difficult and filled with racism and barriers to acceptance into Korean society.

While in Seoul we visited Pearl S. Buck International-Korea, which is a center for children who are orphaned, handicapped, or discriminated against because of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender. Some of the children we spent the day with were half African, half American, or half Chinese. Although they spoke Korean and lived by the cultural expectations and values of Korea, they looked so different that they were not considered truly Korean by Korean society. In other settings these children would be teased by classmates for having African-looking hair or darker skin, but the Pearl S. Buck center was a safe haven where the children could spend time together and forget their differences.

We also spent time volunteering at the Migrant Workers Center in Seoul, where we were introduced to another group in Korean society that faces oppression and discrimination. Because migrant workers have no national identification numbers and no way to obtain citizenship for themselves or their children, it can be nearly impossible for them to access hospitals, health care, schools, and certain jobs. The Migrant Workers Center provides these workers with a shelter, hospital, trade and language school, and support center.

Standing inside a shelter no bigger than two college dorm rooms, where over 80 migrant workers slept each night, I heard a variety of languages: Bangla, Chinese, Korean, English. Despite the language barrier, we were all able to understand each other on some basic level. As my fellow scholars and I helped clean out the center, reconstruct parts of the building, and visit hospital patients, our willingness to serve and desire to help these destitute people was clear even without words. The workers who lived in the center smiled at us warmly as we exchanged a value that transcends language: human kindness. The scholars broke up into separate groups to do different projects; I spent the day tearing up the floorboards of a second-story room that was being expanded into newer and better sleeping quarters. Using power tools and a lot of hard work, six of us were able to tear down an entire second-story floor.

The concept of justice is not limited to one culture or language, nor are passion, equality, or human rights. While in Seoul, our group was invited to visit the Korean National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The leader of UNESCO spoke passionately about human rights issues in Korea. Even before his words were translated, it was obvious from the tone of his voice and the determined look in his eyes that he had dedicated his life to fighting for human rights and was urging us to do the same.

The MLK scholars’ experience in South Korea was one of learning, hands-on attempts to eradicate social injustice, and lectures by others who share our hope that change can happen. Being immersed in a culture so different from our own gave us a completely different view of the world and helped us further develop a global conscience.



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