This story was presented at the year-end-party of Palestine Peace and Solidarity in South Korea on 7th December 2017. Dina is from Beit Sahour, Bethlehem and she’s studying Korean in Seoul now.
This is my story about how I came to love the Korean culture and why I decided to learn Korean. I was first introduced to the Korean culture when I was in elementary school when a Korean missionary and his family moved to Bethlehem. Their oldest son, Simon, became my first Korean friend. In middle school, I asked him to write down the Korean alphabet for me on a piece of paper. I held on to that paper hoping that one day I would get the chance to learn this language. In 2011, when I was a sophomore at Bethlehem University, I got the opportunity to go to Korea for the first time as an exchange student.
When I arrived at Incheon airport, I only knew how to say hello and thank you. The school I was going to was located in a city that is five hours away from Incheon by bus. Halfway through the bus ride, we made a rest stop. As I was not sure how much time I had to use the bathroom and buy a snack, I stood from my seat and asked the strangers around me. A kind gentleman told me I had 15 minutes. Fast-forward to the end of the ride. After we got off the bus, that same gentleman came up to me and asked me if I needed help to get to my dorm. He helped me drag my suitcases and find a taxi. It turns out, this man was a part time professor at the university I was going to, he spoke Arabic, and he knew the Korean missionary family living in Palestine. That day I learned how small the world is and I saw a glimpse of the true kindness of Koreans.
In the short four months that I spent in Korea, I learned a bit of the language, but more than that, I fell in love with the Korean culture. I was determined to learn more; so in 2015, one month after graduating from Bethlehem University, I was back in Korea working on my master’s degree.
When I am in Korea and I say I am from Palestine, the most common response I get is “Pakistan?” Even when I try to explain, “Palestine, the Middle East, near Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria,” I am usually faced with a blank expression of confusion. When applying to events or filling out forms online in Korea I am rarely able to find Palestine on the list of countries. Even on official forms, my nationality is usually listed as 기타(other).
Even when I am in Palestine, I try to stay involved with the Korean community there by being involved at the Korean Cultural Center. I used to teach K-pop dance and perform with my team for local and Korean guests. Whenever we would have Korean guests at the center, I would spend time with them, introducing them to my country and culture. Just as much as I was eager to learn about Korea, I was excited to help visitors learn about my country. However, the more I tried the more I was faced with disappointment.
One particular group of visitors consisted of high schoolers and college age young adults, like me. The dance team and I spent a whole week with the visitors because we were preparing for the upcoming show. After rehearsals, we spent hours with the visitors cooking Korean food and sharing our stories. They truly felt like friends. Several weeks after the group left, one member posted seven albums of our photos on social media captioning them “Israel.”
Another similar incident was when we welcomed a team of volunteers who were offering acupuncture sessions to local Palestinians. This time, the volunteers were older. At the end of each day, we would all have dinner together and pray. One particular lady seemed to like me. She held my hand during prayer and asked for my contact information. Again, after the group left, she started sending me text messages about how she will continue to pray for Israel.
Most of the Korean visitors I met in Palestine would go home and make posts on social media saying how their experience in Israel has touched their lives. They did not mention being in Palestine at all. I was frustrated because I had tried my hardest to share with them the situation in Palestine and explain to them the difficulties that Palestinians go through, but it seemed like my efforts had gone to waste.
In the end, I realized that it is my job, as a Palestinian, to educate the world about my country. Since I love Korea so much, I decided to start there. Although both times I was in Korea, I learned a bit of the language, it was not enough. That is why I decided to come back for a whole year just to focus on learning the language. I hope by the end of this year, by learning Korean, I would have taken my first step toward becoming the first Palestinian ambassador in Korea.