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What I Love about South Korea Study Abroad, and Why It Might Not Be the Same Again

My home state of Washington just declared a “full re-opening” and a return to a (new) normal. As a result, I can see relief on the faces of those around me as we Washingtonians attempt to remember what life was like pre-pandemic and eagerness as we try desperately to catch up on all the activities that we were not able to do for the last couple of years. I count myself among the people experiencing a sense of real hope these days as we continue to see life return to some form of normal.

While there is reprieve, I also continue to grieve the losses. An important psychological tool during the pandemic has been to recognize that our lives might not return to pre-pandemic days. It feels like a form of anticipatory grief—a feeling of not knowing for certain but fearing that it might be the case. My two grade school daughters often express anticipatory grief these days by musing out loud on their favorite pre-pandemic activities (e.g., Chuck E Cheese) before concluding in a sad voice, “IF it opens after COVID” or “But I am not sure it will be the same after COVID.”

Like my daughters, I too have been thinking about the “ifs” and “not sures.” In my mind, there is a lengthy list of things about which I am experiencing anticipatory grief. Some are personal and perhaps trivial given the larger picture of a global pandemic (e.g., loss of large sporting events), while others are professional anxieties as a faculty member teaching in Christian higher education. In this post, I would like to reflect on one of my professional responsibilities—study abroad—and my anxieties around what it might look like post pandemic. I offer this post not as a way to assuage these fears, but as a way to clearly name the losses and to engage in some kind of a lament about the ways study abroad experiences might be permanently altered.

Before the pandemic, I led the month-long South Korea study abroad program at Seattle Pacific University. I personally love visiting South Korea. Even more, I love introducing my American students to South Korea. As a Korean American with strong emotional and intellectual connections to my country of origin, this is one of the highlights of my professional duties—an opportunity to showcase Korea to American students whose knowledge of Korea might be confined to the realm of K-pop (BTS!) and Korean beauty products.

Sadly, after months of earnest planning and recruiting students, the program was cancelled this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I grieve this cancellation, not only because I miss the activities and excursions I do with my students and the educational value of these experiences, but also because of the uncertainty of what these activities might look like in the future when we do get to return to South Korea.

I miss introducing my American students to one of the most stereotypical Korean experiences—an authentic Korean barbeque restaurant—and drawing connections to Christian faith from the seemingly mundane (but thoroughly enjoyable to the palate!) activity. I would take students to establishments where we sit on uncomfortable metal stools and bump elbows with each other while hovering around a small circular table. The fire burning in the middle of the table triggers some nervousness, but there is also genuine anticipation because the meat sizzing over the fire smells and sounds so good. The servers walk (run?) back and forth, sometimes shouting instructions to each other, to us, and it is one beautiful, chaotic mess. We eat, laugh, and dialogue with each other in between bites.

In debriefing this experience, I tell students that it is common practice for friends, family, and companions dining together to keep an eye on each other’s plates to make sure that it is not empty at any time during the meal, and as needed, transfer the cooked meat off of the grill onto others’ plates, often using one’s own utensils. I also like to point out to students that this is a small yet powerful illustration of what it means to take care of others. That when Acts 4 describes the early Christians looking out for each other and making sure that they “shared everything they had” (v. 32) so that there were “no needy persons among them,” (v. 34), that is the best of what interdependence/collectivism can offer—a sense of actively assessing and meeting the needs of those around us. And the Korean barbeque experience is a tiny snippet into what that ideal community can look like. I will never forget seeing my American students serving each other in the “Korean” way during a Korean barbeque after learning about common practices, with a giggle here and there because of the understandable awkwardness of this new experience; or the time that one of my non-Korean students grabbed a piece of cooked meat and placed it on my plate, beaming as she was doing so—likely the first time in her life to do something like that for anyone, let alone a professor.

I long for this type of experiential learning for my students. And at the same time, I wonder if the Korean barbeque experience might be permanently altered for my next group of South Korea study abroad students, post COVID. Will concerns about germs and distancing permanently alter what makes Korean barbecue, Korean barbeque?

I also miss the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) tour. For many students, this is typically the most transformative experience of the South Korea study abroad trip, an opportunity to deepen the understanding of the complexities of the North and South Korea relationship. A particularly powerful experience is the Third Infiltration Tunnel tour, in which tourists take a short walk to the end of the tunnel – the point that gets right up to the North Korean side. During this walk, the average adult has to crouch and walk right behind another person. The tunnel is damp, it is dark, and absolutely no ventilation as you walk next to, behind, and in front of people. The temporary physical discomfort experienced during this brief walk is a window into the collective trauma of the divided Korea peninsula. It is a glimpse into the paradox of how physically close the two Koreas are and yet how ideologically distant they continue to be. During this uncomfortable walk down the tunnel, I lift up silent prayers to God for reconciliation, justice, and wisdom—that the broken apart might be restored again; and I encourage my students to offer their prayers for healing.

Will my students be able to see and experience the DMZ in some form once again? Or will ventilation and physical distancing concerns get in the way?

Or I reflect on my parents, somewhat retired from their cross-cultural missionary life, now living in South Korea. They are adamant that I bring every group of study abroad students to their modest home for tea and fellowship. And like typical Korean parents, they will nod their head when I plead with them to not prepare too much food, and then they invariably prepare a feast. My students and I squeeze into my parents’ small apartment and sit on the floor to form a circle, literally shoulder to shoulder, enjoying the lavish food and tea. Eventually, my father offers his stories about Korea and his life as a Christian pastor and missionary. And like a typical pastor, he promises a brief talk but eventually the stories turn sermon-like. Some of my students, especially who come from non-Christian settings but also those who come from Christian traditions significantly different from my parents, find this conversation to be a combination of interesting, novel, and somewhat uncomfortable. At the same time, it is a great opportunity to see how the Christianity that they were socialized into in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. might be notably different from global Christianity. Teatime at my parents’ place is typically brief—no more than an hour, with my parents always insisting that we stay longer—and we are sitting so close to each other we can feel each other’s breath. It’s quite uncomfortable, especially during the terribly humid summer days of South Korea, but it is a memorable experience for students.

I also wonder: on my next South Korea trip, will my students be able to safely visit my elderly parents, or will health concerns prevent such an experience? Will they be able to cram into a Korean home and see what it is like, or will gathering restrictions prevent this unique learning opportunity?

These are the things I miss dearly as a professor. These are the things that I grieve, not because I know for certain that they will be altered in the future, but because I fear that they might. As Christian colleges and universities go back to resuming various activities, it is my prayer that colleagues who lead study abroad trips can support each other during this time, including offering innovative ideas for how study abroad experiences might be most effective emerging out of the pandemic.

Paul Y. Kim

Seattle Pacific University
Paul Youngbin Kim is Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology, Family, and Community at Seattle Pacific University