Sunday, February 08, 2009

Reflections on South Korea

After getting back from South Korea, I continued to think of the people I encountered there, the issues they face, and the similarities and differences between South Korea, Qatar and elsewhere. I can't say that four days allowed me enough exposure to have any conclusive insights but at least I have some preliminary thoughts...

The energy among the faculty, staff, and students of Sookmyung Women's University was truly exceptional. I was so pleased that the various speakers for the conference complemented each other so well and that the ideas in Deeper Learning in Leadership made sense as a way of thinking about the future of their leadership programs.

The incredible hospitality that I experienced and the introduction to Korean culture I was given revealed some fascinating similarities between South Korea and Qatar. First, both countries are very old and very new; they have histories that go back centuries but they have been reborn in the last half of the 20th century. As both countries were reborn, they sought to modernize in order to take their places among other prominent nations, but the progressivism of both countries is coupled with a desire to preserve their unique cultures, uncompromised by modernization. Finally, both of these countries depend on diplomacy for their survival; South Korea is sandwiched between China, North Korea, and Japan and Qatar is sandwiched between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and any number of other countries that could be named around the Arabian Peninsula.

I couldn't help but wonder what Korea and Qatar could learn from each other. Korea started its climb to modernization in 1948 when it was freed from Japanese occupation and Qatar started in 1972 when it was relieved of British protectorate status. My impression of South Korea is that there are still vestiges of ancient Korean culture but not much. Qatar has protected more of its culture thus far but there are daily struggles to determine what should remain and how to do it in the face of massive change. My deep hope is that both countries can maintain the core of who they are far into the future and that they will be able to discern those things that are truly important to creating societies that are prosperous, progressive, and able to connect across generations and time.

My return trip from Seoul provided additional cause for reflection. During exchange of pleasantries with the Iranian guy sitting next to me on the return flight from Seoul, I expressed how much I wanted to tour Iran, especially the historic site of Persepolis. After a moment's hesitation that I could only interpret as surprise, we got into a great conversation. He worked for an engineering company in Iran and had chosen to continue to live there, even though he has been very dissatisfied with political conditions that have so deeply impacted his life and others. I shared that I've not been pleased with the U.S.A.'s administration either. There's much more detail about the conversation and what I learned from him about Iran but the bottom line was essentially the one I've come to in almost all of my encounters of travel - the people of the world are so much alike in their aspirations and in their desire for a better life.

We sometimes get caught up in our own fears, or in the case of Iranian and U.S.A. matters, we get caught up in the affairs of state. Korea and Qatar are on journeys to modernize and bring the best qualities of life to their people while protecting their cultural heritage. Two guys on a plane from Iran and the U.S.A. hope that our countries can figure out ways to put away the political wrangling in order to serve their citizens. We are more alike than we are different - no doubt.

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