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THE DISPLACED DO-GOODER: Is the Dominican Republic ready for the Korean answer to Jamie Oliver?

Columnist Joanna Sun is back. 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. This month we have the chance to catch up on her latest linguistic and culinary exploits. —ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers.

In my last post, I talked about how I came to live in New Zealand, which in so many ways was nearly opposite to my home country of Korea.

Now let’s turn back to the present, to my vibrant life in the Dominican Republic. I’m five months in…and counting.

The good news is, I’ve been a bit busier of late, having kind of (?) adjusted to my new conditions. I mean, I still feel homesick and miss my family and friends, but because I’m keeping myself occupied, my mind doesn’t wander elsewhere so much. The old adage “Work hard, play hard” seems to be true: it keeps you from focusing on your problems.

Hm, what kind of Spanish am I learning?

As those who read my first post will know, I’m working as a clinical assistant in an orphanage called Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (which literally translates as “Our Little Brothers and Sisters”), in the southeastern part of DR. Sometimes I have a huge amount of work to do, but other times it is quiet and, honestly speaking, I get bored.

Whenever boredom comes creeping in, I take the opportunity to practice my Spanish with the doctor, who in turn tries to pick up some English words from me here and there.

But the thing is, the Spanish I’m learning is Dominican Spanish. They have their own distinct style of speaking, their accent differs and THEY DON’T PRONOUNCE THEIR S’s!

So, for example, they use the word fresca to describe children who are acting a bit cheeky and have an attitude. Recently I learned that in other Spanish-speaking nations, this word more often means “fresh” or “cool”.

Anyway, for the longest time I thought people were saying “freca,” just because they never pronounce the “s”. Hm, why bother having an “s” if you can’t be bothered pronouncing it? Actually, I only learnt yesterday that the word is actually fresca.

Even in the case of popular names, they do not pronounce ”s”; for instance, the name Crismeily, which is quite a common here, is pronounced “Crimeily”!

On top of this, there are also regional pronunciation differences. The doctor I’ve been conversing with has a regional accent, for instance. I cannot quite put my finger on how it is different from most of the Spanish around me, but it is definitely different. Like most people when learning a new language, I find listening much easier than speaking. I can understand a bit of Spanish now but still struggle to formulate my own sentences.

Not so glorious food!

Given that I studied the health sciences, it is perhaps not surprising that I’ve taken on an extracurricular project: I want to see if I can help change the dietary habits of the orphanage children and staff.

I became concerned upon realizing that the average height of kids is lower compared to other Caribbean nations and that the Dominicans have a significantly shorter life expectancy. Many suffer from hypertension and diabetes from an early age—problems that can be traced to diet.

I soon noticed that the proportions of the various food groups are completely off here. In the DR, they tend to limit vegetables and fruits in favor of carbohydrates: namely, rice and beans. No one seems to have heard that you should limit carbohydrates and eat lots of vegetables and fruits. Protein intake, too, isn’t what it should be.

(That said, the children living in this orphanage have it better than the kids who who are living off sugar canes or solely on rice and beans.)

And did I mention their love for fried foods? Don’t get me wrong, I love fried foods, too, and have been gorging at the empanadas, plátanos fritos (fried plantains) and even fried yuka (the edible root of the cassava plant). But really, these foods haven’t been good for my waist and neither are they good for anyone else in this place.

Before I got here, another volunteer, who is in his second year, started a project on improving nutrition. He has asked me to help him out. Hopefully I will get the ball rolling soon and can implement my ideas for new dietary programmes.

Tell me, have I bitten off more than I can chew?

Adding protein and a smoothie to a traditional DR meal

Bring on the cake!

But before I go, allow me a moment to brag about a food-related accomplishment I baked my very first cake! Yes, you heard that right. It took reaching the ripe old age of 22 and coming all the way to the Dominican Republic for me to bake a cake.

Now listen, I love cooking, but baking has never been my thing! I tried baking brownies and cookies in the past—and they were not something you would want to eat.

The problem is, I don’t like following exact measurements. With cooking you can estimate, you can add more things, and be creative with spices and ingredients. But baking requires an appreciation for science and a willingness to be exact. No wonder I screw up every time I attempt to bake something.

But as a volunteer, I am obliged to celebrate birthdays with the kids in my house—and the birthday of one of my kids was coming up at the end of last month. So it’s good I gave it a go and didn’t fail miserably.

Okay, doesn’t look like the most amazing cake on the earth, but it was quite nice…

* * *

Thanks, Joanna! That cake looks yummy! And having written about Jamie Oliver in the early days of the Displaced Nation, I recognize the syndrome. Since repatriating from Tokyo to New York, I keep wanting to rewrite the diets of people here in the United States to be more Japanese: smaller portions, more variety. Good luck with your project!

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!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Opening photo and two food photos were supplied.
Español, by Daniel Lobo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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THE DISPLACED DO-GOODER: My third-culture-kid years in the land of kiwis, hobbits & jandals

New columnist Joanna Sun is back. 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. This month she shares with us what it was like to live as a Third Culture Kid in Auckland. —ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers.

As I explained in my last post, the Dominican Republic is not my first experience of living abroad. The first time I ventured overseas was to New Zealand, for education.

As I’m sure you know, most Asian countries put a strong emphasis on education and academic excellence. When I was growing up there was a boom in teaching children English to children in Korea. (It’s an even bigger trend now.)

I think that was why, when my aunty emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand, my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to join her for a few months. Initially, it was a short-term plan: I would stay with my aunty for around a year or so to pick up English. But then I ended up falling in love with the country and decided to stay for much longer. I attended, and then graduated from, the University of Auckland, with a degree in public health.

When my parents first approached me about going to NZ, I was 10 and didn’t have a clear picture of what I was really getting into. Mainly I was intrigued by the idea of going on a plane. As explained in my last post, I always get nauseous on planes, but this first time I was too excited to care.

Knowing what I know now, I wonder why I wasn’t more terrified of going into a country with another language and culture. I guess that is just a part of my personality because I was excited above all—and didn’t even care that I wouldn’t see my parents for a few months (sorry, mum and dad, love you!).

Looking back, I also don’t recall what it was about NZ that impressed my youthful mind so much. It might have been the amazing beaches everywhere you turn or just the tranquil and peaceful vibe that Kiwis give off. Whatever it was, I fell madly in love with NZ and still feel passionate about that part of the world. If I was given another opportunity to choose between NZ and Korea, I would choose NZ all over again.

What I missed about Korea: The food!

This is not to say I don’t love my native Korea. I do! Like any other person on earth, I am not happy with every single aspect of home. For instance, Koreans put too much focus on academic excellence, leaving little room for creativity.

But I love lots of things about Korean culture—especially the food. If you’re not familiar with Korean cuisine, can I urge you to go and try:
● Korean fried chicken;
Bulgogi (marinated beef; 불고기); and
Soondae (순대), which is similar to a blood sausage, with tteok-bokki (떡볶기), or fried Korean rice cake, in a spicy sauce.

If anyone visits Korea any time soon, eat for me so I can live vicariously, because it has been five months since I ate decent Korean food. As you can imagine in a place like the Dominican Republic, where all Asians are referred to as Chinos (see my last post), you don’t see very many Korean restaurants. (That said, I have found two Korean restaurants in the DR, but I’ll save for a later account.)

Ah, also, should you ever get a chance to visit Korea, there is no need for a car—because the public transport system, especially in Seoul, is amazing. You get on the subway and it connects to everywhere you might want to go. The system never ceases to amaze me. Subways are punctual, cheap and easy to use. Even if you get lost there is an identical loop that will take you back to where you got on, so there is no need to panic. (Though I would not recommend using it in rush hour…)

Novelties and culture shocks aplenty

Getting back to NZ: it was my first time to be surrounded by mostly Caucasian, English-speaking people. Sure, I had seen foreign people on TV and all, but there were very few living in Korea, even in Seoul, where I grew up.

(Nowadays it is different. I am surprised to see more and more foreigners in Korea every time I visit. If you go to Korea now, you will find a place in Seoul called Itaewon (이태원), which is basically a foreigner’s town. They have lots of restaurants, entertainment and shops that are targeted at tourists.)

It was also my first experience of diversity. Compared to NZ, Korea is much more homogeneous, with a single race and culture. I understood the concept of a melting pot, where all the cultures are expected to blend with each other, but I noticed there were people who seemed opposed to that idea. I never quite understood how it works. Like everything else, diversity has its positives and its negatives, I guess.

Similar to other first-timers in NZ, my most memorable experiences include:
● Watching the haka, the traditional war dance of the Māori.
● Tasting pavlova—let’s not even get into the argument of whether it is from Aussies or Kiwis; nonetheless it was my first time trying this marvelous dessert.
● Gorging on kiwi fruit.
● Seeing a kiwi bird for the first time (the national symbol of NZ, from which the nickname comes).
● Picking up Kiwi slang that I use to this day in the DR (English speakers from other parts of the world haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about): e.g., togs (swimsuits) and jandals (flip flops/thongs).

Back when I first arrived in NZ, the Korean community was relatively small, which probably helped me learn English quickly, because in around a year I was reasonably fluent. Of course, it took much longer to become fully proficient.

I am seeing the same pattern here in the DR. Not many people speak English, and even when they do it is very basic. So I am hoping this will help me to pick up Spanish faster.

Impressions of the South Island

Moving on, I am assuming you have heard that NZ is the place that brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s landscapes to life. That was thanks to New Zealand-born filmmaker Peter Jackson, who opted to film The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy entirely in his native land, taking advantage of the astonishing terrains on both North and South Islands.

NZ’s South Island is, of course, very different, from the North Island, starting with the climate. It snows in the South Island in winters but not in the North, where the lakes keep temperatures warmer.

I visited the South Island only once during my stay: venturing to Queenstown, a resort town in the southwestern part of the island. I did all the things a tourist would do, including skiing, visiting Ferg Burger (which, by the way, is amazing: they make burgers the size of your face; I really think they should bring it up to the North, too) and going on the luge ride.

I did not, however, try out bungee jumping… I am terrified of heights. As even going up there gives me the creeps, I feared I might have a heart attack once I started free falling.

Ah, and one last thing: there’s a cookie bar in Queenstown! It serves hot cookies and there’s warm milk on tap at the “bar”. Since I do not enjoy drinking all that much, I was in my element here: lots of chocolate, sugar and warm milk.

Writing this post about my first displacement makes me realize how grateful I am to my parents for allowing me to see the world from a different lens and experience another culture, at such a young age. I also want to thank my lovely aunty, who sacrificed so much to look after me, and put up with my rebellious teenage years.

At some point in the future, I might write about how being displaced in NZ affected my feelings about Korea (and even the Dominican Republic): it’s really been an interesting dynamic.

* * *

Thanks, Joanna! I love the way you’ve managed to recapture your first impressions of New Zealand as a Korean youth. Those burgers and that cookie bar sound amazing! And I don’t blame you for giving bungee jumping a miss: it shows me you are sensible!

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!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Opening photo, Korean food photo, and photos of NZ and DR beaches were supplied.
North Island collage: All photos from Pixabay except for: [Street scene in Auckland], by Naoki Sato via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and [jandals], by jase via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
South Island collage: Photos from Pixabay except for the two food ones: Ferg Loves You, by Nogwater via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and FB photo by Cookie Tie Cookie Bar Queenstown.

THE DISPLACED DO-GOODER: Introducing myself and my new home in the Dominican Republic

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!

* * *

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!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: All photos supplied.

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