A Kimchi Valentine
I don’t like Valentine’s Day.
In high school, when I first realized the day had social significance, it was a source of dread. Who (if anyone) would give me a card? Who should I give a card to?
Once I got a steady girlfriend I thought it would get easier, but alas, now I had to figure out what to get her. Would my gift be too cheap(1) or would it send the wrong message? Now, thirty-three-years-old and married, I still dread the day a little.
But this week, I found the solution: I’m moving to Korea!
Why? Because in Korea, the girls give the guys gifts for Valentine’s Day(2). No worrying about what to get my wife; she’s just got to get stuff for me. What’s not to like!
A Naked Soul
For both of my long term readers, you’ll remember I started this blog to chronicle my attempts to become a better person, in mind, body, soul and spirit. I’ve spend a lot of time writing about my attempts to improve physically, and spiritually. I’ve demonstrated how my twisted mind thinks (at least in a business setting).
But I’ve spent relatively little time being “naked” and transparent with respect to growing my soul. I consider the soul to be the part of me that wants to and needs to give back to the community, and I last wrote about it in my post titled Riding with the Devil. In that post I said:
I have to force myself to find more diversity in life … So once I finish up with the current charity commitments I have … I’d like to try something that forces me to get out more in the community, and meet people who are leading wholly different lives from me.
So in this post, I feel it’s time to report progress.
First off, thanks to two friends who gave me explicit suggestions for how to follow up on the goal I stated. Jane pointed me to Volunteer Match, and Brigitte pointed me her friend Neil in New York who is very involved in the community here.
Through Volunteer Match I found an organization (The International Center) that caters to recent immigrants who are trying to learn English. And through Neil I found a great after-school program (the New Song Learning Partnership) in Harlem that needed mentors and tutors to help current and recent high-school students improve in their classes, apply to college, and get a job.
Starting in November I began a six-month commitment at the Internal Center where I spend two hours a week helping new immigrants practice their English through conversation. And in December I began spending two to three hours every Saturday helping at New Song.
Thoughts so Far
Have I gotten what I was looking for? The preliminary results are a resounding yes.
For example, I discovered the fact about Korea Valentine’s Day during a conversation I had with a young woman from Korea. For the past three months I’ve been chatting with her and another young man from Korea, and learning a lot about Korea’s culture and practices, about how difficult it is to be a student in the US who speaks very little English, the real importance of family when you’re in that situation, and how much church groups really stitch together some of the gaps in our society. I’ve learned how different Korea’s social mores can be, but yet how familiar they are as well. And I’ve learned that even though folks come from a different cultural background, they share the same types of hopes, dreams and fears we do.
The International Center has definitely helped me meet people who lead wholly different lives from me. That’s been fun.
But it’s been the Harlem after-school program that’s been the most eye opening. I’ve met some really smart and fun kids who come from a totally different background than I came from. And it’s been challenging; I’m struggling to connect with some of the students. I find it very difficult to relate to some of the issues they have, and I don’t always understand what they’re saying.
Now, here’s the fun thing. The main reason I’m having trouble connecting is not because the students are black, or because some of them come from a less-affluent background. As I wrote about in Riding with the Devil, that reaction is wrong.
No, I’m having trouble connecting with some of the students because they’re teenagers and I’m a nerdy 33-year-old.
It turns out that in the past 15 years new slang, new technology, new pastimes and new teaching methods have been invented (did you know there’s a new SAT test format, and that you now get points deducted for wrong answers on some sections… I didn’t until four weeks ago).
But the great news is I share the challenge with a bunch of the other motivated volunteers, of various races and backgrounds, who all are trying to figure out how to bridge the age-gap as well. It’s hard, but it’s been very rewarding as well, and slowly I’m learning how to engage with the students.
My big ah-hah(3) has been that human beings, no matter what our backgrounds, have far more in common with each other than we have as differences. Now, I always intellectually thought this, but getting involved with these two great organizations has really helped me to emotionally know this.
I’m just starting with this, and I hope to continue being able to at least make this relatively small time commitment (4-6 hours a week). It’s been harder than raising money (sorry folks, but sending e-mails is pretty easy), because donating money requires far less time. But it’s also been commensurately more personally fulfilling.
I’m not planning to write much more about this, mostly to respect the privacy of the folks I’m working with, but I wanted to come clean on where my progress was. By the way, if anyone is interested in getting involved with either organization, drop me a line at aclarke at abclarke.com and I’ll hook you up.
(1) I’m from Cavan County in Ireland, and the cheapness of Cavan Men is legendary there, as is their general lack of intelligence. Cavan Men are the butt of almost all Irish jokes. See here and here for examples.
(2) OK, turns out Korea has “White Day” on March 14th where the guys are supposed to return the favor, but I figure I can fly back from Korea by then.
(3) My second big ah-hah is that Harlem has some kick-ass food! There’s a bakery on St. Nicholas and 116th (whose name I can’t remember) that’s the best I’ve been to in the city; and I’ve been to a lot of bakeries!