I have reached the peak and have begun the descent of my journey.
There are still several places to visit, but as per terms of the contract, my final report is due two weeks prior to my departure, so that leaves me little time to do much else other than add a few details from pending journeys. The bulk must be finished, and I feel as if I need more time- but it seems that’s always the case.
There are many things I feel comfortable observing, and have grown accustomed to photographing and openly watching behaviors and patterns. I am sure that I seem like a blatant tourist, continuously photographing the simple and the mundane, things such as common signs and plants growing in the sidewalk, side dishes, and the sea. I am simultaneously mesmerized and studying, which makes for an interesting combination. It would help if I hadn’t fallen so deeply in love with the country and the people. As any scientist knows, distance is a base requirement for observations and critical analysis. I feel I will need to put my observations in check, for they will be overly complimentary and deficiently critical.
I have learned so much more than what I have aimed to study for, and it is difficult to convey the depth and breadth that living here, even for the briefest time, has offered. There are activities which are favorites, such as watching the sunset and being able to see the sea every morning and every evening have provided opportunities for observational analysis. Watching the patterns in a routine basis provides information which can be transferred and applied in other aspects. Likewise, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it is difficult to analyze integral cultural patterns which are deeply-seated and provide an enculturation basis for societal members of this culture. One of the largest aspects that remains beyond my grasp is the timing of flows and behaviors. There are always unstated expectations in every society for how things move, flow, and the length of time it takes to initiate, do, or complete any given activity. For example, meals often come in stages, and have dishes which are meant to be eaten in a specific manner. I have been scolded for eating a side dish as a main course item when I only wanted that particular item. Likewise, in another instance I thought the full meal was served, only to find two more courses were served.
There are situations here that are taken for granted, and I envy the ease of which Koreans are accustomed to these instances. One aspect which has hit home for me has been to be able to witness the wearing of traditional clothing out in public with acceptance and honor for their culture and heritage. As someone who has worn traditional Native regalia in public in the U.S. and on multiple occasions doing so has been scorned, flipped off, and “war whooped” at, I admire the retention of culture by Koreans, the shirking of the colonist rule as well as western influences to diminish this. I am very pleased to watch as youth and elders proudly display knowledge, performances, and embrace the cultural outfits to events and that it is supported socially, not just in specific instances.
One of the events that has held the most impact has been to be able to have the opportunity to visit islands, and learn from an expert in this area. I remain mesmerized by the uniqueness and the strength of the islanders, and the upholding of cultural value systems which are the backbone and guiding light simultaneously. I have found the islanders to be unique and possess a perseverance that is reminiscent of Native tribes’ survival techniques. The Traditional Ecological Knowledge that remains intact is impressive to say the least. It has a depth and breadth that cannot be found inland, and the study of this aspect of the culture unexpectedly piques my interest. The similarities to coastal tribes is resoundingly familiar.
Another very pivotal moment has been the invitation and witnessing of traditional calligraphy. I was extended a very special and private invitation; weeks prior I’d been asked what my name meant. I had carefully explained that as Natives we have been forced to use English names which have no meaning, and few of us retain traditional names due to governmental colonial oppression and forced removal of our culture which included our names. I explained how my given English name “Samantha”, meant “flower” and “listener”, but how nicknames were more prevalent, and that my father has called me “sunshine” from the time of my birth. At the time of inquiry, I had no idea why there was such interest.
Later, upon arriving at the event location, I was told I would be receiving my name. I sat watching and learning, it was explained to me how Chinese characters in the past were meant for the upper ruling classes, but how these are maintained to convey a variety of meanings in traditional practice to this day. I sat watching, but unknowingly participating as glances to me and simple questions were asked, such as “what brings you happiness” and to that of my roommate: “is she kind?”. Over an hour of contemplation went by, soju and homemade berry wine adorned the men’s fingertips as the intricate detailed debate regarding which characters representing my name were carefully selected, and ultimately, held unique my identity thereafter. There were many rejections, on the basis that they were inadequate, ill-suited, or did not hold enough beauty. It was if they were speaking of someone else, until I was led into the other room again to witness the art spring to life. Laughter, smiles and hand-holding adorned the evening; I was moved to tears and was speechless to realize the event that had just transpired, as well as the reverence this group of people held for me. In my culture, names hold power, and to have an event that was so similar, to attend my own naming in a culture where I am cared for as deeply as those who are my own, was an honor that I will hold in my heart forever.
It has been the small things, the things which cannot be held, bought, or requested yet have been offered so copiously and freely that have touched my heart, and made this experience so richly rewarding. Experiencing boat rides and running my hands in sea waters I never imagined touching, to warm laughter as an alarm. Rides over the bridge, witnessing the ship of a nation’s heartbreak, to the ceremony for healing walks home. Kind smiles, patience with my questionings, favorite bands and traditional music. Normal nights, dinners with ‘family table’ discussions, food offerings that range from simple to complex, and watching bottle tops being opened with chopsticks.
I have enjoyed every second of my time here, and have been allowed to do exactly what I love, in a way that I was not prepared to do it in, and a way that has never been done previously. From the moment my key opened the apartment door on the second day, a chorus of “Samanta!” resounded happily, every time since. Opening the door is just a single instance the happiness my heart will forever hold. And only one of the many reasons it will be excruciatingly hard to leave.
It’s difficult to explain how leaving the culture that surrounds you, to experience another is a leap of faith, and seems much like jumping off a cliff and hoping there is a soft landing, but when you look down you can only see clouds, and the ‘end result’ is unknown. Being a researcher, one gains comfort in that unknowing leap of faith.