I’m in my home state of Kentucky for the first time in several years, and back in the United States for the first time in a year and a half. It’s the longest I’ve been away from both and coming back feels both strange and wonderful. I can feel all the friction in life of being a foreigner dissipate, and that’s quite an experience, to notice a lack of friction. I guess this is one of the things the experience of living abroad buys you, you can feel “home” more deeply.
It’s all still pretty fresh and will only last a few weeks, but my mind is already drifting into thoughts about just how foreign I am in Korea and how much I feel it. Korea is easy to learn to survive in but hard to feel at home in. I love it, no doubt, I truly do. I love being and feeling foreign, and when someone local takes the time to make you feel and be less so, it’s a real gift and friendships can grow quick and deep in that way. Likewise, when someone local takes no time to do that, or takes time to make you feel more foreign it can feel horrible and disheartening. Experiencing both of these things while out and about is one thing, but where one works and lives is harder. For me, my place of employment is the hottest furnace of cultural friction. It’s accredited both by an international Christian school organization and by the Korean government. It often feels like two schools in different dimensions existing side by side and overlapping each other in some quantum realm where the rules of physics are broken and bent. Often I love it because it creates situations that I find comedic. A task that should be simple is complicated to no end because cultural norms for decision making, leadership and communication smash in to each other or miss each other completely. Over time it does start to wear people out, and then it’s time for popcorn as different cultural norms for engaging conflict take center stage.
I’ve managed to befriend and learn the most from third culture people. These are folks who are Korean-plus. Korean Americans, Korean Canadians, Korean Argentinians, Korean Uzbeks, and the list goes on. The ones I work with are all bilingual and even though they play down their knowledge of Korean language and culture, to a mono-cultural American they are gateways into the other dimension, and with every small explanation, be it about words or issues or cultural norms, a once blackened part of the map of our experience has light shed on it. Being foreign is just what someone from the outside is, regardless of how they feel. But feeling foreign is related to how much information one has to survive and thrive in the context, and ignorance is bliss until your life is defined by it. Upon reflecting on my flights home, I realized the best friends I’ve made in Korea are the ones who help diminish my ignorance quotient, which always has the affect of making you feel more at home, or at least more at ease. The worst feeling is being ignorant, simply not having information, but being treated like you’re stupid, like you have the information but are too dumb to use it properly. Maybe the only thing worse than that feeling is when someone knows you’re ignorant, and won’t help because they feel like you’d be too stupid to understand. In a work environment, where you’ve been hired because of your value to the organization, being made to feel foreign, or being ignored or overlooked because overcoming your foreignness will take too much time, starts to make you question your value. At one point I actually asked all my students and their parents who visited me, if they felt like I was a valuable addition to their education and life. Thankfully I got a positive response, and it has helped me focus on what likely matters most to my time in Korea, my students. Working in a foreign context means that you are dependent on others to give you access to parts of the organization in order to provide any value there. A lot of times access can very simply be denied. That leaves you in a position to hammer down on what you do have access to and make the most of it. Like I said earlier, I actually love Korea and I love my work teaching Bible in a secondary school, but there’s no denying the challenges.
Another big part of the challenge is how to deal with challenges. After years of having my conflict management and leadership skills honed in the furnace of tech startup culture on the west coast, where issues are surfaced quickly and open and frequent communication are valued at a premium, I’m now in a context where that’s the worst thing you can do. All my instincts work against me. I’ve highlighted what I see are severe issues to the organizational and spiritual health of our Christian school, and it’s as if I’ve walked out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to my butt. Everyone gets quiet and tries to pretend it’s not happening to protect what’s left of my diminishing honor. I hate it. I hate being treated like the problem for simply taking a flashlight and showing where the problem is, especially when that was the very currency of leadership where I had come from. But there it is, ignorance met by a black hole of communication and the oh so present reminder, you are not from here. That leads to another question of belonging.
Thankfully I believe a sense of belonging should be cultivated separate from a sense of foreignness. Even though I’m visiting my home now, I don’t feel the same belonging I once did years ago. I’m a different person, and I feel called to different things in different places. I feel called to belong in a foreign place dealing with all the friction that ignorance provides. Ultimately, as a Christian I believe I’m an alien on Earth no matter where I am, and I hope that in Christian contexts this is something we can all agree on. We are citizens of God’s kingdom and that transcends every tribe tongue and nation.