Finding Human-Heartedness in the Most Extraordinary Places

I ventured to Asia for the first time in the summer of 2015. My wanderlust has been around for a long while, but until last summer, it hadn’t taken me to Asia. In truth, European countries offer an added layer of comfort for me, as even when I have no idea what I’m saying, I can still attempt to say it. Languages that use symbols have always scared me. Another unfortunate reality of being human is that being in a minority is often uncomfortable, and as a blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian visiting Asia, I was hesitant about being in the visible minority as well.

[In teaching my students the importance of discomfort, I also often need to remind myself that growth comes from the very same discomfort that fear does.]

Despite my initial hesitations, when presented with an opportunity to experience Korea for the first time, I jumped at it. Sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, The Korea Foundation, the Kim Family Foundation, and H.F. Lenfest, 24 other American teachers and I ventured to experience Dynastic and Modern Korea.

An incredibly polite people who don’t particularly care about or notice your hair or eye color (let that be a lesson to my future preconceived notions…), Koreans live with the ever-present “threat” posed by their northern neighbors in a way that doesn’t make sense to Americans (and especially doesn’t make sense to the American Media). One of the most informative conversations we had while in Korea was about the “only move” that the North has; were they ever to use nuclear technology, that would seemingly be it for them as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Though supremely interesting (pun intended!), I’ll save those stories for another day.

The most profound experience I had, of the many thought-provoking and meaningful moments this eight days had to offer, took place inside a Confucian Academy. Oksan Seowon is a Confucian Academy built during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897). It is one of the Seowons on the tentative list to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its significance to Korean history and global culture.

There are signboards over most buildings in Confucian academies; the signboard pictured above was over the lecture hall; a large space students congregate for lessons.

Translated roughly, this sign designated the space as “The Hall to Seek Human-Heartedness.”

I was floored. Our knowledgeable guide had translated many things for us over the past few days, but I just couldn’t get past how meaningful this particular place was; I was transfixed by it. While others explored the area, dressed in traditional Confucian apparel, or played a traditional Korean game, I contemplated what it meant that THIS was the place in which, and the means by which education was meant to be imparted. Growing human hearts. Not growing CEOs, college graduates, or low-level government employees, but human hearts. What an idea.

Confucianism is a complicated belief set that I will struggle to meaningfully understand, likely for the rest of my life, but this made sense. In the middle of rural Korea, with 24 people I had known only a matter of days, this made perfect sense to me.

The importance of education, and its fundamental purpose, truly transcends belief systems, nationalities, regions, and languages. I had just experienced that truth in a profound way.

Borrowing a phrase from one of my most formative experiences as a teacher and as a person, I believe education is the primary means by which we can truly become more fully human. Apparently, 16th century Confucians in Dynastic Korea did too. What a world. I can’t wait to experience more of it.

MC Lean

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Here goes nothing.

Well, here it is, folks. Years as a thought, months as a potential reality, and finally, my first post as a “blogger.” Those who know me in real life know that traveling consumes a good chunk of my free time. Thinking about it, planning it, working to pay for it, talking about it, and finally, living it.
 
One of my fundamental tenets for operating in this life is the belief that the more we know about the world, the more the world makes sense. That guided my decision to study social science in college, my decision to teach high schoolers, and my fervent commitment every day to try to make the world a little better off (and more knowledgeable) than it was yesterday.
 
The week of the bombing in Brussels, a group of my students and I had one of those really authentic moments that don’t happen as often as they should in education, but provide more than enough motivation to keep teachers doing what they do. We were casually talking about travel plans, as one of my students was going to Europe for the first time over spring break, and another student in the group was a German exchange student. My students asked if I would be traveling to Europe any time soon, and I got to share with them that I was heading to Germany, Prague, and Austria this summer as a part of an awesome opportunity through the Goethe-Institut (that will be documented here this summer). One of them then asked, “Will you stop traveling because of terror attacks?” I thought. I had to compose myself before I gave a knee-jerk reaction that minimized legitimate concerns my students had over very serious threats that always hit a little close to home, regardless of how far away they are. ‘Well, of course I’ll continue to travel!’ I wanted to say. But as I considered my answer, it became clear that I’d have to justify this to a group of 16 year olds, many of whom haven’t even left the upper Midwest. Disrupting our lives is the point of terror. Stopping our daily activities, forcing us to rethink our interests and hobbies, moving us to second-guess people who have names, complexions, or faiths that we don’t, changing our foreign policies, and hardening our political rhetoric.
 
I left that class convinced that one of the most important things I can do as a teacher is to make my students excited about the world, instead of afraid of it. To make them curious, rather than hesitant. To ease them into an understanding of diversity and difference, rather than leave them to be confronted by horrific events and misunderstandings that leave nasty legacies. It is SO important to expose my students to the importance of travel. Opening minds, opening eyes, opening hearts, increasing tolerance and diversity, being uncomfortable, being both proud and a little apprehensive to tell people where I’m from; travel provides the opportunity.
 
So, yes friends. Yes, I will travel. Yes, I will continue to challenge preconceptions and be challenged by things that are unfamiliar and nonsensical (hello…all of Italy!), to be embarrassed that I can’t meaningfully speak another language, and be both humbled and reassured when I try. To be smiled at by friendly strangers and to be a little apprehensive about things and people who are unfamiliar, but hold the promise to be wonderful and kind.
 
The promise is the thing. That’s what keeps travel exciting and essential. The promise of a better me, better community, better relationships, and a better world; that’s what traveling holds.
 
So…here goes nothing. I’ll start with my trip to the “Friendly Island” of St. Martin/Sint Maarten in the Caribbean; surprisingly, not just beaches and umbrella drinks, but a lesson in international affairs. Then, the agenda this summer consists of Germany, the Czech Republic (or Czechia…more to come on that later), Austria, Northern California, and an end-of-summer trip to Milwaukee to take a lovely young lady to a lovely University. Join me for the ride, suggest things to write about, ask questions, post about your own thoughts and travels. It’s called McLean Meets World (thanks Ben!), but it’d sure be better (and more fun!) if more of you were along for the ride; actually or metaphorically.
 
I’ll have to think about some cheesy, appropriate signature to use at the end of every post. For now, I’ll steal Rick Steves’ and utilize my DJ name, you know…to make this official.
 
Keep on Traveling,
MC Lean

 
p.s. It also happens to be teacher appreciation week, so take a second, and think about all the teachers in your life–in a school, at home, at work, in hobbies or sports, in life. We are all the products of everyone we’ve known. I’m glad to know so many people who have positively impacted my life, and I’m glad to keep trying to do just that myself.