Conrad Grebel University College
140 Westmount Road North
Waterloo, ON, Canada N2L 3G6
This reflection was written by Suyeon Kang, International Volunteer Exchange Program Participant from South Korea 2018-2019.
“Whatever you expect, you will experience beyond your imagination.”
When you read this sentence, what do you feel? You might be excited or nervous. I experienced both of these feelings when I heard this sentence from previous Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) volunteer participants in South Korea. When I was reflecting on my year with the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) in Canada, I suddenly recalled this sentence. I can say this year has been totally beyond my imagination.
During my IVEP year, I was pushed out of my comfort zone to try new things. I’ve explored Canada with joy and challenge, winter has been an especially big challenge for me! Watching snow storms, constantly shoveling the driveway, temperatures of -25°C, and snow in April were all new to me. Even with all of the challenges winter brought, I did enjoy skating, cross country skiing and camping. One of these special moments in Canada was when my host mom and I went to the Winterlude festival in Ottawa and skated on the canal! Another joyful experienced in Canada was being in nature. During a road trip with Ontario IVEPers in May, we has an amazing experience canoeing and kayaking on the Grand River in Ontario.
Staying with a Canadian host family was a wonderful experience. They would bring me to extended family events and created space in their home so I felt like I was part of the family. I spent a lot of time with my host family in the evenings after work. I enjoyed the family culture in Canada and the way family members would joke with each other. It made me think about the family I’d like to have in the future. My favorite foods in Canada are definitely homemade desserts and pumpkin spice lattes. Specifically, I’ll miss rhubarb cake and Paska (Mennonite traditional Easter bread.)
Through living far from what is familiar to me, I have asked myself many questions: who am I? Where do I belong? Sometimes I felt like I was a stranger and did not belong anywhere. At times I missed everything from back home, but when somebody would start talking to me with smile and show warm hospitality, I would get encouraged and tell myself “It's going to be alright. Don’t give up.” I learned that hospitality is making space for newcomers and foreigners.
Language and cultural barriers were also a challenge. The longer I am in Canada, the better my English becomes and the better I am able to understand cultural customs - although I sometimes I can miss things. During this year, I have found out that communication is also non-verbal. Even though I can’t communicate everything in English, it doesn’t matter in building relationships and making friends.
As an International Volunteer, I had to depend on my new family and community in many ways, especially with transportation. Thankfully those around me were always willing to help, they understood my situation and that I often needed help. Initially it was not easy and I felt like a kid who depended on those around me; but, I ended up letting myself be vulnerable and learning many things out of curiosity. I learned more about myself and how to care for myself under pressure during this time.
To me “diversity” and “interaction” were key words in learning about peace this year. Now I have great friends from 28 different countries through this program. At the IVEP mid-year conference we had a session where we chose a topic and shared stories with other IVEPers who chose the same topic. I chose the session: Peace and Conflicts. There were IVEPers from Chad, China, Columbia, Laos and Vietnam. We started to talk our countries current conflicts and later shared our own life experiences with conflict and reconciliation. We listened to each other’s story carefully, wept and prayed for each other. I felt we bonded with each other regardless of our different back ground, race, age and gender.
I remember when I met the North Korean ambassador of the DPRK’s UN mission to the US at the Mennonite Central Committee UN Student Seminar. How could I forget this short moment when I met, for the first time, a person from North Korea? The Ambassador’s Secretary and I had a brief talk in Korean and found similarities in the television shows we both enjoyed.
Personal interaction was a powerful tool to broaden my view and break the stereotypes and bias I’ve had. I have enjoyed living in Canada, meeting people that moved to Canada from different countries and eating cuisines from around the world.
Another takeaway has been my growing eagerness to make a social impact and develop practical ways to advance peace. Working at the Centre for Peace Advancement, I’ve had many opportunities to learn various ways that peace is being advancement, and about the technology, entrepreneurship and innovation industry. The Centre for Peace Advancement has supported organizations and start-ups which aim to promote peace locally and globally to have a social impact on campus and beyond.
Learning about the exhibit for the Grebel Gallery each term and giving tours to people were also meaningful tasks in my role as a host. Throughout my placement, I’ve assisted with five exhibits. For instance, I was able to see paintings from North Korea and shared my experience with A New Era of Peace and a Peaceful Land. I learned cultural translation and got courage from Iranian-Canadian artist Soheila Esfahani for Cultural Translation: Negotiated Third Spaces and Those Who Live There. I learned about First Nation’s worldview and our unconscious discriminative attitude from Gichitwaawizi’igewin: Honouring. I also learned about Mennonite traditional fraktur art and how it can be reframed with modern issues from New Fraktur. We also made a special pop-up exhibit for retiring custodian Marinko Franjic.
During my IVEP year, I realized there are numerous conflicts all over the world. When I heard the voice of vulnerable people in the conflict. I was surprised since I haven’t heard these story from the media. Although my program is finished, I would like to continue listening to these voices and speak out for them.
At the beginning of March, I wrote ‘peace’ in languages from around the world on a white board in the Centre. To fill the white board, I looked at some quotes for peace and came across one quote from Mother Teresa. I loved the sentence and wrote it on the board.
"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."
As I am writing this sentence in this article, my IVEP journey taught me that we belong to each other.