Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Learning by Experience

Writing in the Kyeongyang Magazine, a professor of social justice at the Incheon Catholic University recollects his experience with foreigners--mostly American foreign missionaries working in the Incheon Diocese--when he was a child. (Tomorrow's blog will deal with  his own overseas experience and with the experience of  foreign workers in Korea.)

When the professor was a child, coming in contact with a foreigner was not a frequent experience. However, he did see a foreigner at least once a year and that was the ordinary of the diocese, Bishop William McNaughton, on his pastoral visit to the parish. "Wow, he's tall," he remembers thinking, "not everything  I see is ordinary."
As an altar boy he served at the Confirmation Mass, and seeing the shoes the bishop left in the sacristy, they looked like a model for an aircraft carrier. Out of curiosity he put his small feet into the shoes and thought that all Americans must be tall and have big feet like the bishop.  At that time, there were many foreigner missioners from America in the diocese and he wondered about the country and about the people.

He remembers that his father was rather fluent in English.  Later, he learned  that his father worked in an  American military base and  during the Vietnam war volunteered to go to Vietnam, like many other Korean fathers, to work to help support his family. And, like many others, he spent many years overseas doing this.

After ordination he lived as an assistant to an American missioner who is now retired in a mission station. He was able to learn much during  this one year living with the foreigner, and praises him for being a good pastor. But there was one problem.

The missioner did not use any salt in his food. He would have a large bowl of lettuce and  sprinkle it freely with olive oil. He did tell the cook not to be concerned with his needs but to serve the assistant what he wanted.. However, the instruction fell on deaf ears, for he was the pastor and he came first.

In his heart, the assistant couldn't understand how someone who had been in the country for over 30 years could still have a problem eating Korean food. With his own bias, he saw the priest as discriminating against Koreans.

One day the missioner asked the assistant very indirectly for help in renewing his resident permit. He had moved into a different area of the city and was required to report this to the county office. In the past, he had difficulty in doing this and wanted the assistant to accompany him to the county office, and if necessary assist him with the permit.

The assistant quickly agreed to go with him to the county office, where everything went smoothly, taking no more than 30 minutes to complete. On the trip home, the missioner thanked his assistant priest, "Father, many thanks; because you came with me I could finish what was to be done very quickly."

The assistant priest then realized that in the past the foreigner had to visit the county seat a number of times to  register before successfully completing the papers required, sometimes because a person was not present or because not all the papers were in order and, at other times, because the missioner was not familiar with what was required. It was here that the Korean priest came to appreciate some of the difficulties foreigners have in Korea. (To be continued)

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