Open-minded - Curious - Flexible - Sincere - Dedicated
All are words that can be used to describe Felipe Kidali Ajeosshi Foster. The North Carolinian turned Seoul resident shares the impetus for his 12,000 mile journey to N.E. Asia and how the aforementioned traits, no doubt embedded in him through his upbringing, have served him in his life as an expatriate, educator, and drifter.
ND: Where are you from?
I'm from a small U.S town called Elm City in the state of North Carolina.
ND: What brought you to Korea?
The year was 2009 and the U.S recession was beginning to rear its ugly head over all of the country. My retail job went bankrupt, public school teachers were "suggested" to take less time off which left my substitute teaching gig high and dry, and my tutoring job had ended for the school year. I had decided to attend a graduate school that offered on-line classes, so I wouldn't have to be pinned down to one area. Little did I know that taking a class on campus for the quarter was going to hurt more than help. I started looking for other jobs, but nobody would hire me or I wasn't qualified. I was looking on Craigslist and saw an ad about teaching ESL in Korea. I heard of ESL before and I had been watching Korean movies for awhile. I've always been interested in other people cultures and my parents raised me to be open-minded and respectful. The dream of traveling and seeing the world came back to my memory. I was like hey, if America doesn't appreciate my degrees, well there are other countries that do. I want to travel, I like helping people, and I have experience with teaching. I made it to Korea about two years later because of paperwork, timing, and money.
ND: 2009 was a tough year for a lot of people financially and professionally. At that time I had been considering teaching, but it wasn't until I became unfulfilled with my desk job that I decided to come to Korea and test the water. Do you feel that Korea has been appreciative of your training and talents? Also, has your experience abroad given you any deeper appreciation of your own background?
Overall yes they [the Koreans] have. As long as you're flexible, a hard worker, social, and don't try to embarrass or hurt them everything is okay. You have to give and take and know when to fight your battles, but that's how I handle things in the states too. Because of the language barrier I cant express my anger and disapproval as much as I want but that just helps me learn to calm down more and have more patience.
My experience abroad so far has taught me to hold on to my home training and values. Being abroad you come across people trying to change you into them and trying to tell you that their culture or way of thinking is better. I've always walked to the beat of my own drum. Traveling abroad is almost like going to college. When you parents tell you not to join any cults, don't get into trouble with the police, people careful who you surround yourself with, have fun but not too much fun [laughs].
ND: That's really cool. How was it adjusting to the chaos of Seoul having been raised in NC? Seoul has about a dozen lines on the metro, and more people than the entire state of North Carolina. What was your adjustment like?
Adjusting to Seoul was quite easy for me because it's a larger city. Instead of having to drive everywhere and wait in traffic, I'm now able to ride the subway and travel from one point to another in a shorter time. Being around more people didn't bother me either. I guess I'm a quick adapter. The food to me isn't much different, and my family's culture is similar to Korea's [family culture]. I told myself that I was going to become more extroverted when I come to Korea and have kept to my word. Becoming more outgoing has probably been the most helpful in my adjustment.
ND: How old are your students? You mentioned that your parents raised you to be fairly open minded. How do you find your students? Open, closed, somewhat malleable?
I have had the opportunity to teach ages 5-60+. Overall most of my students have been open-minded and eager to learn about different cultures and people. At my first school I had one student who went to Chicago and came back more ignorant [than before she left], but I think her bubble was popped. She experienced a taste of international life and didn't have the comfort of home to fall back onto. She told me she never wanted to leave Korea again.
ND: That's wild she came back more ignorant than before she left. Any guesses as to why that may have been? Do you know if she insulated herself in the Korean community there or maybe she was just hanging out with the wrong crowd. In any case, Chicago can be intimidating in it's own way.
I feel she came back more ignorant because of fear. I have no idea what she was doing there, but she did let me know she saw a lot of poor black people and thought that was funny.
ND: That sucks.
ND: What about respect? The American South is known for its hospitality. Likewise, certain Asian nations— Japan comes to mind— are really noted for being respectful. What has been your experience of respect in Korea, and some of your other travels through Asia (Hong Kong and Macau)?
Being hospitable when you are invited over here is the most similar. Their house has to be presentable and they offer you a drink and a bite to eat. I've seen some disrespectful things but not enough to think the majority of the country feels the same. It's more of, that's how that individual handles problems or failure to communicate effectively. In Hong Kong they stopped and tried to help me when I had questions. They didn't stare as if the world isn't diverse. In Macau I only got to experience the business/touristy side of things and not the community so, I can't say much.
Most of the issues I have had had been because of lack of knowledge and interaction. Not only am I representative for Americans, but for Black Americans.
They want to know where you live. If the food is different. Do I think Korean women are prettier than American women. I do hate the question, Do you like spicy food? I love spicy food and it seems like only people who dislike spicy food travel to Korea [laughs].
ND: What's your favorite Korean food?
My favorite Korean snack is 군만두 (fried dumplings) . My favorite Korean meal is 닭도리탕 (chicken with potatoes soup).
ND: It's cool that you were into Korean movies for awhile before you came over. I think I only really saw one Korean movie, before I actually considered coming over to Korea. To this day I consider it one of the worst movies I've ever seen (I can't think of the name of it, but it was about this woman who gets plastic surgery to become unattractive). What about Korean cinema appealed to you? Do you feel that it helped you pick up anything from the culture? If so, what?
I saw like 50 korean movies before I started coming across the crappy ones. When they suck they suck all the way. The cinema appeared up to date and modern. The quality was similar to a Hollywood or Bollywood production. When they started talking about first loves, the way they teased, expressed themselves through body language. I don't know, I had no problem relating to the movies. It felt like I've been watching them all my life. My whole family could move to Korea and we would have little difficulty adjusting. I also like how dedicated they seemed to their friends. I liked that a lot. I knew once I had a good friend that we would be friends for life. However, they were movies and if they were anything like American movies I knew my world would be turned upside down. I've experienced almost everything I saw in a Korean movie. One of the reasons why I wanted to visit Hong Kong was because of films and pictures.
ND: How is your family's culture similar to Korea's?
Education is like number one in my family. We don't have to receive A's, but that's always the objective. Even if the grade is lower my parents are realistic in our abilities, but an A is always better. My family loves to grill, eat soups, fermented food, and it has to have flavor. Family time is important; Sunday is family day. I remember not even being able to leave the house because we were to spend that time together. Showing respect to someone older is important. You are suppose to speak when you enter. I'm rebelling against the always having to look sharp at the moment but my family is like if you can you should always look decent and keep yourself up in a presentable manner. It's just so much the more I think about it. I'm sure a lot of other homes are similar too, and I think my family values or mostly universal. One thing that is different though is the alcohol. My mom and dad don't play that and it's not kept in the house. I'm sure they take a sip here and there based on the situation (e.g. a wedding).
ND: What is an 'Ajeosshi'? Why have you adopted that designation? I'd like to call myself Sheikh (Arabic for wise man), but I don't think I'm ready for it.
An ajeosshi is an older man in Korea. [Laughs] Even in the states I would be teased of having an old spirit or old man tendencies. At my second job these kids in first grade would say, Wow! Tall old man, because basically I'm taller than the average American and Korean, and I'm old enough to be their parent. Second, I had a group of fourth graders and I spoiled them by accident, but they called me Kidali Ajeosshi which is based off a story of an older man who helped this young girl whenever she was in need. My female fourth graders gave me that nickname and it's one of my favorite movies. In English it's Daddy Long Legs [laughs]. The fact that they knew I had long legs, but also that I was there to help them as a teacher and they could depend on me was very touching to me. So that nickname, to me, is an honor and I saw it as a sign of acknowledgement of how much effort I put in being a good example.
ND: Any places in particular you really want to visit? I feel like you would really enjoy Taiwan or Japan.
Growing up things on TV, movies, video games, pictures, books, and even manufacturing tags were motivators in what I wanted to see. I love watches and one of my favorite watches was made in Taiwan and I said I would like to go there one day. Wherever Eddie Murphy went in Golden Child the movie I said I wanted to go there. In Russia when I see those traditional buildings I get very excited and I say I want to go there. Thailand, India, Greece, Ireland/Scotland. The more I learn the more I want to see and do. Yeah, I think might be heading to Japan or Thailand soon to work. My company is global and instead of trying to find a new company I think I'll stick with this one to get around. I've been watching Anime and Kung Fu movies so long that I might become emotionally overwhelmed going to Japan. It happened to me in Hong Kong.
ND: What is your travel philosophy?
My travel philosophy . . . hmmmmm . . . what comes to my mind is Experiment by Experiencing. To me that means just go for it but be safe. When you experiment you have to be cautious but also push the boundaries to come out with something new and amazing. So let me change that to Experience by Experimenting!!