Don’t ask me to care

I stepped into yet another frigid building with my sister, Alyson, and her fellow Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) and listened as carefully as I could to the guide’s Korean. I am not Korean. I don’t understand Korean. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing here, or what I was getting into.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing here, or what I was getting into.

After our guide finished speaking, we all turned to Hyeyoung, one of the Daejeon site coordinators, who was translating for us. Apparently, this building housed the homeless. The second floor, where we were, featured a room full of bunk beds and a small kitchen where the cook, a woman, was bustling around in. The third floor was for housing women, and it was much smaller. Homeless women weren’t as common as homeless men. Oftentimes, it was the men who left the house and separated from their families, in order to take the family debt with them into homelessness.

Our next destination was to visit the jokbangs, or extremely low income housing. The government had begun to create the jokbangs in preparation for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. While it meant that their inhabitants were technically housed, it didn’t resolve the more fundamental problems that had put them there in the first place. And so a large number of impoverished were put into limbo, technically not homeless, but also not eligible for government aid.

When we had entered the building for the first time, we made our way around a small group of older Korean men standing around in a lounge. Compared to the hip young college kids I’d seen in Seoul and the well-dressed professionals walking around the streets, these men looked grungy. Many of them had facial hair and faded, possibly dirty clothes. Unsure of how to act, we simply stepped around them.

I was a little resentful, to be honest.

I was a little resentful, to be honest. I didn’t want to be there. I had volunteered with Alyson before, watching kids (though mostly being watched, myself, as I don’t speak Korean) and volunteering at a cafeteria. That was fine. In those cases, I had a job that I could perform. Even if it was for the underserved and for those less well off, I could clean, serve food, or wipe tables, I could do so without looking a single person in the eyes.

So, I stepped around them, like I step around the homeless back in Chicago. I shake my head and mutter “sorry.” Sometimes I will give a few dollars, if I have the cash, but more often than not, I have the cash and I don’t give.

And now I was being asked to care. I hadn’t signed up to be a YAV, but I was along for the ride, so I was expected to care. I hadn’t asked for this. Just give me a dish to wash, a domino set to topple with the kids. I didn’t need to hear about the systematic disenfranchisement of the poor. Okay, fine, I’ll donate more. But do I have to endure the social awkwardness of a clash of social classes, in another country, through a cultural barrier of language and honorifics?

But is it asking too much to care?

But is it asking too much to care? We step around the poor. We give a handout every once in a while, but we don’t address the real problems, and we don’t see them as real people. Here I was, in a center dedicated to addressing real survival problems for real people, and I was preoccupied by the fact that I wasn’t several layers of privilege removed from them.

As the day progressed, I gradually became aware of the kind of work my sister was doing. It wasn’t about donating money, or doing kind actions. The harder work, by far, happened in the heart, the wellspring from which kindness emerges. And I realized that I had a lot to learn.

The harder work, by far, happened in the heart.

When was the last time you were asked to care?

If you’d like to support Alyson…

…or the YAV Program in the work they do, please click here or copy this URL into your browser to donate: Alyson needs $1,101 to fund the rest of her mission in Korea.

Besides financial support, if you’re interested in doing good work in places of conflict, please read more about them here or copy this URL into your browser:

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