Silent kindness

Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see
― Mark Twain

Friday morning: It’s raining here this morning in Daemyung, a small town (maybe village) northeast of my hometown of Nonsan. Two buses and a wet jacket later, and I arrived at the third of the schools at which I’m placed. I made my way inside, damp from walking a half mile back to the school after getting off at the wrong bus stop. I laughed while on the phone with a close friend, telling her, “Either I laugh at this, or I melt down from feeling overwhelmed. I’d rather laugh.”

I’ve been in Korea just over a week now. Though frequently overwhelmed by signs I can’t read and words I can’t understand, I’ve been far more overwhelmed by countless simple acts of kindness. Ask my friends and they will tell you I am rarely at a loss for words. Here, though, the smallest act of kindness has left me speechless and almost in tears from feeling overwhelmed by gratitude and thankfulness.

Being in a country where I don’t know how to read or speak the language, most of my interactions involve pointing, grunting, Google translate, and simple gestures or body language. Teachers and colleagues talk to each other about me while I stand by and listen, smiling because I don’t know how else to respond, waiting for the next instance where they say something I understand or try to speak to me directly in my native tongue, the one I’m supposed to be teaching to their students. Yet I get this sense that aren’t speaking ill of me. Hopefully I’m not just being naive.

Be a little kinder than you have to
― E. Lockhart

My first day here, after riding the bus with other expats here to teach English, we arrived at the provincial education office for a very brief orientation. The program coordinator was giving instructions to our Korean co-teachers (in Korean, naturally), and I had my first real moment of shock. My language isn’t the native tongue here. I can’t presume someone will speak my native tongue. If I want to speak English with another native speaker, I’ll have to look for them. These realizations were jarring and scary. I took a breath and went with it.

I thought back to my foreign friends in the US whose primary language isn’t English. I thought about how many times they were present for a conversation they maybe couldn’t fully understand. I thought about how it felt to be spoken about instead of spoken to, and I wanted to write each of them and apologize for my shortsightedness, for how easy it was to take my ability to communicate for granted.

Though I’m making progress in reading letters and recognizing patterns both in writing and in speech, I’m months away from being able to effectively communicate in Korean, possibly longer. In the meantime, I find myself thankful for every time a local looks me in the eye and says annyeong or gamsamhabnida. I’m thankful for the times they say hello, how are you or nice to meet you. I’m thankful for their smiles, for the times they pull up a chair for me to sit down (especially when I’ve done my usual habit of kneeling on the floor to place myself at or beneath their level).

Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.
― R.J. Palacio, Wonder

Saturday morning: Another rainy morning here in Nonsan. The rest of my Friday finished out well enough. My co-teacher at Daemyung walked me to the bus stop since I was leaving early, and she waited with me in the rain. Before that, my principal (교장 선생님 / gyo-jang seon-saeng-nim) and I bonded over John Denver’s “Country Road”, singing out on the front porch of the school after I answered her questions about my life before teaching. I’ve been here a week, and already, that’s one of those moments I’ll keep with me.

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photo credit: Brook Ward (via Flickr)