Today we welcome new columnist Joanna Sun. Born and raised in Seoul, Korea, she spent her college years studying public health in New Zealand. And now she’s displaced again—on a philanthropic mission in the Dominican Republic. Every month she will be sharing a few of the highlights of this new, and even more daring, faraway adventure. —ML Awanohara
Hello, Displaced Nationers. Let me start by saying that my first entry into the Dominican Republic (DR), in January of this year, was not all that great—not because someone treated me rudely or something horrendous happened. It was simply because I am a terrible flyer.
I love to tell people I plan to travel the world one day if it weren’t for the fact that flying makes me sick. I cannot eat, sleep or do anything on planes. There’s no such thing as the “friendly skies” for me. Being in a plane just makes me feel groggy and ill.
On this occasion, I had a 13-hour flight from Seoul to JFK and then another four hours to the DR. By the time I reached New York, I was feeling so nauseous I had to ask for a paper bag. By the end of the journey, I could not give a rat’s ass about being in the DR. Plus, it was late at night and I could hardly see anything.
How did this happen?
By now you may be wondering: how did I choose to come here in the first place, a Korean woman who did her education in New Zealand? I graduated university with a degree in public health and returned to Korea, Seoul, where my family resides only to find myself unemployed and leading a somewhat lackluster life.
Despite my problem with flying, I’d always seen myself as going on some kind of overseas adventure, most likely as a public health volunteer. Back in my home country, I did some research and came across an interesting opportunity right in my field: working with children in an orphanage called Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (which literally translates as “Our Little Brothers and Sisters”), in San Pedro de Macorís, in the southeastern part of the Dominican Republic. (The umbrella organization is NPH USA, which supports homes for orphaned, abandoned or otherwise disadvantaged children not only in the DR but also in Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.)
A few weeks later I received a letter of acceptance, and my DR adventure began.
A rough landing…but I love it here (I think)
Of course, the fantasy of helping people in a foreign land is one thing; the reality can be rather more challenging. Once I reached the house where I would be living for a year or more, I felt suddenly alone. I woke up the next morning thinking, here I am on the other side of the globe, in a foreign place to which I have no connection and don’t even speak the language: what was I thinking? For the first week or so, I kept to myself. I didn’t even eat properly and just sat in my room sulking or sleeping.
I should also mention that I had a horrible time getting over my jet lag. With a 13-hour time difference, it was literally the difference of day and night. My first few days in the DR was the first time I realised, wow, I really can sleep for more than 12 hours a day. I was constantly napping and sleeping, and even when I was awake I wasn’t really all that conscious.
Fortunately, time helps. Two months have now passed, and I can honestly say I love being in the DR. Yes, language and cultural barriers are still getting to me. I have a hard time communicating in Spanish, and that gets in the way of my job sometimes. I can’t really formulate sentences yet; most of the time I talk in broken Spanish: I just throw vocabulary out there and hope the other person will understand what I mean.
But I love it here, I think, and am so thankful for the opportunity.
Getting called out for being an Asian woman
Yes, I do get called out on the streets for being a woman—and in my case, also for being Asian. No matter what part of Asia you are from, people here will collectively call you China/Chino. This I am relatively used to by now. I have come to accept it as it is and just ignore it mostly. (Even if I didn’t want to ignore it, my Spanish is so minimal that I couldn’t possibly hold my own in a verbal argument.)
I have mentioned this reception to some Dominicans, but the response I always get is: it’s not a big deal, people don’t mean to offend you. This response surprises me, because whenever I tell non-Dominicans about it, they invariably take offense on my behalf, along the lines of, “How can they collectively call all Asians just Chinese?” or “Do they not know that Asia does not consist just of China?”
Maybe Dominicans are not used to seeing many Asian people who are not from China? Occasionally, someone will ask if I’m Chinese and, when I say no, some of them will ask: Japan? I say no again, and they go, “Then where?” When I tell them Korea, many of them just nod—and I wonder if they have ever heard of my country.
Occasionally, though, I’ll meet someone who has heard of Korea, and the next thing they will ask is: Corea del Norte o Del Sur? When I say South, they often say: “I really want to visit North Korea.” And then we have this whole new conversation about why they should not try to go to North Korea.
Gradually I am also picking up some special Dominican words. The most interesting one I’ve encountered so far is guapa. In other Spanish-speaking countries, guapa means pretty and cute, but here it means “angry”. Hm, I wonder how the word cute turned into angry? Curiouser and curiouser.
Santo Domingo, the DR’s capital city, has a small Chinatown but no Koreatown.
Allow me to introduce my little angels
Moving on to my job: as I mentioned, it involves looking after children. I am working in a clinic as a clinical assistant/public health coordinator, which has been set up inside an orphanage. I have been given the additional duty of hanging out with the kids and basically acting as their friend or sister. I am assigned to what I call the “baby house”: the youngest child is two years old and the oldest, seven. Every day in that house is spectacular; so much energy—and yes, they fight and scream from time to time, but they are also my little angels. As much as they have become attached to me, I have become attached to them.
I play with them and spend most of my evenings with them before putting them to bed. The first words I learnt that I continue to use frequently are: cuidado (watch out!), tranquillo (quiet!), and mi amor (my love). These words expanded my Spanish but also taught me that, sometimes, a few words are all you really need. Who needs verbs (and verb tenses)?
My plan is to stay and work here for about a year, maybe a bit more depending on how I get on. It is after all volunteer work; as much as I love the concept of being able to help people, I also know that life won’t wait for me and volunteering cannot be something permanent.
This is the first of many posts to come, and I hope that as time goes on, I will learn more and be able to share with all of you how amazing the DR is. But the next time I write, I plan to talk about my first displaced adventure, as a Korean woman going to New Zealand for an education. Korean and Kiwi: quite a combo, I think you’ll agree!
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Thanks, Joanna! I have to say, your first post reminds me of the early days of the Displaced Nation, when we devoted a whole month to posting on the theme of “global philanthropy.” One of my own posts from that era, 7 extraordinary women travelers with a passion to save souls, is still one of our most popular. It seems that women have long traveled the world for philanthropic reasons. Of course in days of old, they went by ship. But is going by plane actually better? Perhaps not in your case… 😦 In any event, thank you for providing such an honest first-hand account of your attempt to do good in the DR.
Readers, any thoughts for Joanna, or questions you’d like her to address in future posts? Please let us know in the comments.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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Photo credits: All photos supplied.