Every great adventure begins with one single step. They say that the first step is the hardest. It probably was, but we should not forget that there are many other difficult steps in this great adventure. Today, that step was the one I took as I straightened my tie, opened the car door, and planted my foot on the damp asphalt outside the Korean Presbyterian Church of Pensacola. Those of you who know me will find this striking because I am neither Korean nor Presbyterian. In fact, I know no useful amount of Korean, and I’m not even religious. This was the best chance I had though, and I was determined to take advantage.
Let me premise this by stating that earlier this week I secured a contract to teach English in Korea starting in March. As someone who prefers to be prepared for the challenges that await me, I have since been trying to learn Korean language and culture. However, I strongly distrust the applicability and veracity of travel blogs and digital language courses. I knew that I needed to find real Korean people with whom I could interact and from whom I could learn. The Korean community here in Pensacola is very small, but I remembered having a conversation with a Korean missionary many months ago when he knocked on my door. I politely refused his offer to join the church, but I recently found myself wishing I had kept that flyer. After a brief online search and a little inconspicuous reconnaissance of the location, I found the Korean Presbyterian Church of Pensacola not far from my home.
On this fortuitous Sunday morning, I swallowed my fear as I pulled into the parking lot and realized that people were actually here, and I was actually going to interact with them. I watched for a few minutes as old Korean ladies got out of their cars and shuffled into the squat boxy building that looked more like an over-sized trailer home than a place of worship. After seeing a few white people enter the building, I was satisfied that the service would not be exclusively in Korean. Not wanting to be underdressed, I had worn my suit. I hastily tied my tie, donned my jacket, and walked confidently to the front door. With every step, the sickening anxiety dissipated. When I reached the door, I put on my warmest smile, and pretended like I knew exactly where I wanted to be. A kind old lady greeted me at the door and asked in broken English if I was here for the service. I smilingly responded with a nod and curt reply, took the program, and took a seat in the very back row, which did nothing to hide me in the very intimate sanctuary. Looking over the program (mostly in Korean), I strongly contemplated getting up and walking right back out the way I came. At that stage though, the act of getting myself out of the situation was going to be much harder than it had been to get myself in, just as I had intended.
In the middle of the service, the pastor asked the congregation to leave their seats and say hello to their fellow worshipers. Timidly, I started extending a hand to all of the strange yet welcoming faces swimming around me. As I should have expected, many flocked to this tall, white newcomer. I briefly explained my motives, and, honored by my curiosity, the parishioners promised that I would find what I was looking for if I would stay. The remainder of the service was almost entirely in Korean, but the church had provided us foreigners with headsets to listen to a prerecorded translation.
The service ended serenely, but I was rushed as I stood to leave. They weren’t going to let me out that easily. Little did I know, lunch had been provided, and I was expected to stay. Shuffled from one kind old lady to her pretty young granddaughter and another kind old lady and another lady and someone else, I started to realize that all of the anxiety that I had felt only an hour earlier had been wholly unfounded. These people could not have made me feel more at home.
I spent another two hours at the church. I ate with a group of girls who were going to college in Pensacola and observed while one of these girls taught a few of the second generation children how to read Korean (Hangeul). I was made to promise that I would return, and I fully intent to do so.
I am not an assertive person. I am fully aware of that, but I refuse to accept it. I will not allow my quiet demeanor and poor social ability to prevent me from making connections that I must make if I want to succeed in my goals. I have proven to myself once again that it only takes the act of getting myself into the right situation to make the right things happen. I see the relationships I started building today becoming pathways for knowledge and friendship that will aid me along my journey.
“Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, just literally 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery, and I promise you, something great will come of it.” We Bought a Zoo (2011).