After graduating from college, I bought a one-way ticket to South Korea. A professor had invited me and two close friends — Gonji Kang Lee and Joyce Jungeun Kim — to join a radical progressive group of activists in Incheon, where they were looking for English teachers for their community and would share community organizing practices as well.
The three of us didn’t know what we wanted to do after college; it was 2009 and the financial crisis was in full swing, taking a toll on the job market and our peers. The gloom and doom of our employment chances was pervasive. My friends had their own reasons for moving to Korea, but as for me, why not roll the dice in another country?
The gloom and doom of our employment chances was pervasive. Why not roll the dice in another country?
In the following whirlwind of two years, it’s ironic that I would learn how to resist capitalism in Korea despite my move being motivated to use my competitive English speaking edge for profit. It’s a well-known fact in the Korean American community that as a last or even first resort, you can always go to Korea and teach English. There are some horror stories of academies working their employees to exhaustion, but the pay is great and happy hour is a lifestyle. I’d make a ton of money while riding out the worst of the job market. This simple formula was calculated by values that I thought were universal, and living with this community in Korea made me realize that there were choices beyond what I knew.
It’s ironic that I would learn how to resist capitalism in Korea despite my move being motivated to use my competitive English speaking edge for profit.
Given, not earned
We landed at Incheon Airport and took the subway to Bupyeong, a small town an hour outside of Seoul. There was a gray-haired elderly man standing about, and to our surprise, he was our main contact, our sunbae or mentor. After introductions, including a maddening interrogation by our relatives to confirm our contact wasn’t a sex trafficker or communist, Sunbae dropped each of us off with a host family. I lived with a single mom and her daughter, sleeping on their floor.
Once there, we were able to further nail down what in the world we would be doing. The idea was to pilot a program where Korean Americans could come to Korea to teach English, but to low-income workers, all the while interning for a local nonprofit to learn about social issues on the ground floor. My friends and I would be the first guinea pigs.
My friends and I would be the first guinea pigs.
Gonji put it best: “The community we lived with in Korea is hard to describe, as the U.S. context makes it hard to imagine the level of collectivism that we encountered during that time. The people we lived with were elders from the 1987 student democracy movement that strove to dismantle the military dictatorship under Chun Doo Hwan, and from there, they established a political community led by a badass woman, which was unheard of at that time.”
During those two years, the three of us met several organizations that were a part of their political network. Their work included an anti-imperialist feminist collective, an environmental justice group that educated older adults on how to garden in an urban landscape, a daycare to care for the infants of movement people, and a youth empowerment group.
We were eventually given an apartment, as in someone in the community let us stay there for free. In due time, a washing machine, kitchen appliances, and furniture found their way to our humble abode; everything we needed was given to us. At the various nonprofit offices we visited, there were built-in kitchens stocked with large pots, where lunch was made (usually by a man!) to feed the entire staff and whoever else happened to drop by. Everywhere he went, Sunbae was fed for free, and us along with him.
Undoubtedly, there were other, more discomforting culture clashes — such as the lack of privacy or living with bugs dead and alive — but this community was the closest thing I had ever seen to the community described in Acts: “And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need ... and shared their meals with great joy and generosity” (Acts 2:44-46 NLT).
Yet I rarely met a Christian activist. A few had Catholic upbringings or associations, but it wasn’t faith in God that motivated them in their work. My church attendance and participation actively conflicted with my organizing duties and I asked for guidance. Sunbae managed to wrangle a pastor the community trusted to meet with me. The pastor also seemed conflicted, but essentially, he told me to stop going to church, and simply learn from this community. The church will always struggle to be her true self wherever I am, but this community was rare. They simply used a different language and means to realize shalom in the world.
I rarely met a Christian activist. It wasn’t faith in God that motivated them in their work.
Need, not profit
Our sunbaes took unthinkable responsibility for us, investing their capacity and time into three 21-year-olds who had grown up in various American suburbs, knew nothing about the real world, and had minimal job experience, let alone marketable skills.
But money was something we did not have to worry about. It felt strange and somehow easy to rarely think about money. Surrounding us, the prospects of making more money were bountiful. I’d be waiting in a subway station taking a phone call in English, and strangers would try to give me their business cards, asking if they could hire me as an English conversation partner. Distant relatives would call regarding our tutoring availability. Ads would appear in our Facebook feeds about nearby academies looking for teachers.
In this first real foray into adulthood, it wasn’t a competitive salary that motivated our choices, but what we thought was the best use of our time in the context of their community, to support the good work the community was already doing. How might our English skills be used for maximum community impact? We redirected our “product” of English skills toward need rather than profit. And we never made more than we needed. Even if we needed something, someone would give it to us.
We never made more than we needed. Even if we needed something, someone would give it to us.
Is this what having neighbors is like? But on a city-wide level? I treasured this lightness — to not have to worry, the closest I would get to feel as a bird of the air or a flower in the field. But I was also aware that I was able to so viscerally know this freedom through a narrow door, hewn from my privilege as an English speaker and my context of a country where English fluency was in high demand.
With the money we made, we pooled all our income into one bank account despite having different wages. I left Korea earlier than my friends without withdrawing anything, because by then, “my share” wasn’t a real thing anymore. I didn’t think to ask about it, because it didn’t feel like mine, but the community’s.
I came into Korea with practically nothing. To leave with nothing felt logical and right. I could not in good conscience return to the States having profited off of the community or the Korean people — my people. So much had been sacrificed for my stay there. My mother had given up her own Korean citizenship so that I could navigate Korea with a citizen’s benefits on a F-4 visa. We couldn’t give much — at most, our time, experiences, thought partnership, and English skills — but we gave it all. Any real profit, what Christians might call fruitfulness, remained to be seen in the weightiness of my life.
I doubt there are many places in the world like that little town of Bupyeong. It was but one site of resistance, trying to carve out a corner in society where community meant something dynamic and robust. Why would we need to insure our cars, our health, or our lives even, if community were real?
Making only what I need is a value that I practice still today, though in the States and amongst more of my own demographic, I face both internal and external reasons for unease. I’ve tried to make friends with neighbors, only to face my own inhibitions and bewildered stares. I didn’t realize how alone America’s individual-centric culture actually feels until I had experienced community in Korea.
Making only what I need is a value that I practice still today, though I face both internal and external reasons for unease.
At one point, I had asked Sunbae, “What is it that drives you? If there’s no guarantee that you’ll win the good fights in your lifetime, what gives you hope?” We had heard several stories of activists in the community who had died at young ages due to brain aneurysms and stress from fighting in a fight where the wins were few and far between. Sunbae had a grim, almost resigned look on his face. For the first time, he looked older and not the jovial, grinning giant we knew him to be. He answered, “It’s this community. My community gives me hope. I live like this for them.”
Nine years later, my friends and I are going back to pay our respects to the sunbaes and bring money fundraised from our U.S.-based communities to our Korea-based community. The name my friends and our sunbaes had given ourselves still feels true today: Han Sot Bap, which means one large pot of rice from which the whole family eats. It’s difficult to gauge whether I have made the most of their investment in me; as I share how I’ve been with them, will they recognize my footsteps have been in step with theirs? Will they think I have “gone my own way”, to refer to someone who has left activism? I don’t know. I can only go and say thank you, with gifts and a life that might do them proud.
“My community gives me hope. I live like this for them.”