Friday, October 12, 2007

Korea Update 12/13/03

Dear friends,

It's been over a year since I've last written an update, and although I find it difficult to summarize a year in one letter, I will try.

My older brother David got married to my friend Becky last August. He is the first of my siblings to get married, so I think I can say confidently that my brother and sister and I are all hoping this will appease my mother for a few years and take less pressure off of all of us. The preparations for the wedding were very educational in terms of bringing out a lot of family issues. However, it was also an opportunity for me to rethink my (negative) attitudes toward marriage, and see that the true meaning of it can be beautiful. And I am happy to have a sister-in-law who is also a good friend.

I also parted ways with my boyfriend of 2.5 years last summer. The break up was amicable, and as I care deeply for Dope I hope to maintain our friendship. Only time will tell.

Earlier this year, I began volunteering for a Buddhist environmental and human rights organization, which is one of the few organizations that really practice what they preach, in terms of living a non-consumer lifestyle, treating others with respect, and being mindful and self-reflective. I have been learning a lot from them, and it has been a nice re-entry to the NGO world. Through volunteering with Jungto, I was able to meet engaged Buddhists (meaning socially-engaged) from all over the world, and a good friend from Thailand has helped get settled here.

"Here" meaning Thailand, where I have been since November and plan to stay until February, conveniently riding out the harsh and COLD Korean winter by eating good food, getting massages, and enjoying the warm Thai sun.

I'm currently in Mae Hong Son, a small border town to Burma in the beautiful northwest, surrounded by mountains and mountains. It reminds me a lot of Korea, and they even have something that looks and tastes like kimchi. I believe the people of the north and Koreans are close relatives.

I am working with an ecotour organization called Jorkoe Eco-Trek( doing office support and selling tours and products. I also get to go on some treks, and am learning a lot about the ecotour industry. This is something very close to my heart, as it combines my two loves, the environment and travel. Whether the industry (or the organization) lives up to these ideals is another story, but so far so good. Maybe this will be a starting point for a new career…?

I am also teaching english to volunteers of a Shan(ethnic minority in Burma) organization. The Shan are not recognized as displaced persons, like the Karen, so they do not have the 'benefit' of living in refugee camps. I say benefit because altho the thai government is not exactly channeling funds there, many int'l and local organizations are, so for good or bad there are schools and training programs for them. However, this does not apply to the Shan (as well as other ethnic groups) who are considered migrants, so there are few programs available to them. Faced with little schooling, few opportunities, and almost no jobs, many young Shan women are lured or turn to prostitution to survive or help their families survive and the men usually become day laborers as they are not legal residents. The organization has an informal school and works with empowering the youth.

I originally came to Thailand with the purpose of volunteering with refugee camps along the border, hoping to find some 'inspiration' by working with them. Initially disappointed, I find myself unexpectedly inspired by the hill tribe people. In our tours we have a lot of interaction with the families, and on a recent trip to a Lahu village, I was impressed to see a 50-year-old couple, living in a wooden house and cooking with wood, happy and in love. I was struck to see the strong feeling of community in these villages - most things are shared freely, all activities are inclusive of everyone, and people have open hearts. You can see it in their faces and in their smiles, which always reach their eyes. I cannot imagine anyone in these villages, despite their poverty, suffering from depression or loneliness. I felt honored to be allowed in their homes, eat their food, sleep in their beds, and learn about their lives.

I speak of loneliness because it is something that has always been a part of my life. It is at once more and less acute here. In the villages, in some interactions with people, I don't feel its presence. At other times, when I feel frustrated with the language, insecure about not knowing how my actions are being interpreted culturally, or when I unknowingly hurt or offend someone as a result, it becomes particularly acute. These are not new feelings. In fact this is exactly what I went through in Korea the first few years, and what I go through sometimes even now. When I am feeling more positive, I realize that learning about a new culture and language is a lesson in listening and observing carefully, one that I need to learn and relearn always.

I will be leaving MHS next week and spending Christmas with my friend in Chiang Rai. Afterwards, I will be participating in a 10-day forest walk, a spiritual retreat spent in nature, hearing the stories of Karen hill tribe people and meditating. Shortly afterwards, I will be going to Mumbai (Bombay) India, to interpret for a conference and spend some time travelling. I should be back in Korea by March.

I hope all of you are well, and please keep in touch.

With much love from Mae Hong Son,

Sarah Eunkyung

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