Rule No. 1 in international youth exchange: When talking about each other use a language everyone understands.
So today’s blog post will be in English, since I am writing about a dear friendship of mine with an American woman. How strange it feels to call her „woman“ since we met when we were both still teenagers in South Korea.
But let us start at the beginning.
After my experience with Building Bridges in South Korea in 2008, I was eager to get back to this land and its culture, especially to spend more time with my Korean friends.
I applied to an exchange program, was accepted and got the chance to live in Korea for a whole year. (More about this exciting process in another post). Naturally, I hoped I would live in Seoul, but as it turned out I was send to Daegu.
I remember the day I got the phone call regarding my host family and living situation. Sitting on my sister’s couch in our German flat surrounded by two cats and playing on a Game Boy, my Mom rushed in and gave me our phone.
A friendly woman asked me if I would be okay with sharing my host family with an American girl, also participating in this exchange, for the first three months. Of course I said yes. No matter under what circumstances I wanted my shot at living in South Korea.
Only after this phone call ended I felt a rush of insecurity. What would this girl be like? Would she like me? Would she find me to be boring in comparison to her great life at an American high school, in an American town with her American driving license and awesome parties in her friend’s houses?
As it turned out I was very, very wrong. As it turned out the cultural shock regarding sharing a room with a Westerner would be as hard to handle as my Korean culture shock.
Our first meeting was not perfect. In fact, it was as bad as it could get. Around twenty students starting their exchange year in February 2011 had a preparation week in Seoul. Victoria and I were two of these students. We all introduced each other to the group and explained our personal reasons to participate in this adventure.
There was a lot of talk about K-Pop (which I knew nothing about back then). I felt strange and a little out of place. So as an almost completely unknown girl came to me and happily said: „You are Jessy, right? That means we will share a host family!“ I rolled up my walls and responded: „Uhh, hi?“.
The situation in Daegu: We shared our room and even our queen sized bed, we went to the same Korean high school, though to different classes. We shared a Korean tutor.
We were stuck with each other. One reason for this feeling might have been that we could talk to each other and we both felt the pressure to fit into our new surroundings. Other than that there was not a lot of similarity between the two of us.
I was irritated by so, so many little things. Socks in our bed, eating in our bed (I have a thing with clinically clean beds). No discussions about the Arabic Spring or any international political topic (so I thought at the beginning). Watching Korean music shows and keeping up to date with the latest K-Pop news. Applying nail polish, watching youtube tutorials about hair styling and make-up.
In retrospect all of these things are irrelevant. But at the time I was so overwhelmed. Victoria was nothing like I imagined her to be and still I was not able to cope with our differences. I was annoyed. And the problem is, once I feel annoyed everyone can see it. I am the worst at keeping my feelings under cover.
Cold hearted, arrogant, inflexible, stubborn. This is how she saw me and who could blame her?
Little by little we managed.
Common enemies: school supervisors who could not keep their hands to themselves and accused us of not trying to be good exchange students. An exchange organization who would not really take care of us.
Trade-offs: I would go to karaoke with her as long as we ate a waffle afterwards and sang at least two English songs. She taught me K-Pop and English and I would take her to Taekwondo practice with me.
Personally she made me feel comfortable with growing into a confident woman. One must remember: we were stuck deep in puberty and in a strange land with all kinds of crazy challenges.
I struggled with finding my way in-between martial arts, trying to safe the world and figuring out the first crushes. I can only hope I gave her some support in finding her own way (like she helped me).
We became a little like sisters and it was awesome. Brutal honesty about how we judged each other at the beginning. Introducing each other to western culture; who could have known how many differences there are between the U.S. and Germany. Deep conversations about love, life, personal goals, our worlds, our actual reasons to go to South Korea besides K-Pop and Taekwondo.
Still there were fights, discussions and little things that annoyed each other. But nothing big enough to kill our growing friendship and loyalty.
Why this is such an important friendship to me: Few people in my life have yet taught me as much about myself as Victoria taught me. Whenever I meet someone new I tell myself: Remember to be a good person and remember to get out of your comfort zone.
If it wasn’t for our exchange year in South Korea (and all the factors that had to come together so that we would end up there together) I would have missed out on some really great experiences and life lessons.
I try to be aware of my own bubble and how it affects my thinking. This is especially helpful for my learning in medical school and patient-management in the clinic. Isn’t it funny how eight years ago I met someone who would so strongly affect me.
P.S. This post can’t possibly fit all the memories and stories we shared during and after our exchange year. I hope it fits all the feelings and my great appreciation for this lasting (and ever surviving) friendship.