Nothing prepared me for the amazing time I had at the 2016 Rotary International Convention in South Korea. When I took this job, I did not know I would be living and working in the backdoor of the Convention festivities. And I certainly didn’t expect to be a volunteer for the weekend!
For newcomers to my blog, and Rotary International is one of the largest service clubs in the world. Their motto is “Service Above Self” and they achieve this through one of the six humanitarian-based areas of focus. In 2014, I was a Rotary Ambassadorial Global Grant Scholar to Ghana (check out my posts from 2014 and 2015). As a Rotary Scholar, I served under the Basic Education and Literacy area of focus while earning my MA in Adult Education at the University of Ghana. During my year abroad I volunteered in the big city of Accra as well as rural villages, gave presentations to local Rotary clubs, and got to know the local people while sharing about my own American and African American culture. Rotary hosts a Convention each year in which Rotarians, Rotaractors, and anyone affiliated with Rotary can attend. This year, the conference took place in Seoul. After getting touch with Past District Governor (PDG) Lou Mello, I had the opportunity to attend the Youth Leadership Summit the day before the Convention began, and I also got to volunteer during the Convention.
After a long week of work, I went by home, gathered my belongings, and headed to the Hi Seoul Hostel where I would spend the weekend for the conference festivities. Upon arrival I discovered that I would be sharing a room with nine other girls! I know I’ve grown a lot because this time two years ago, I would have complained and whined until they gave me a room with one other person. But after my initial shock I saw it as a fun opportunity to get to know other people and simply asked for my room key.
My uh, sleeping bag at the hostel. May 26, 2016
I was met at the door by some very nice girls from Japan. In fact, five girls I met who I shared a room with were all either from Japan or living there. They were a sweet, quiet group of girls who were very friendly and fortunately for me, spoke English. We were all excited about the next day and talked and laughed for way too long. When I finally got to sleep, I was glad for the rest.
The next morning there was a little organized chaos with the busses that would take us to the site for the Youth Leadership Summit (YLS). After a little while, I got on the bus with some Germans, Africans, Jamaicans, and Asians. Throughout the whole weekend all I could think of was what an amazing dose of culture I’m having! Shortly before the bus took off, a girl got on and sat beside me. She introduced herself and said although she was Korean, she was living in Japan earning her PhD. Little did I know that for the rest of the weekend we would be inseparable. Chloe and I had a lot in common and by the end of Friday night, I had all but loss my voice from laughing and talking so much.
At the Summit, we heard from some amazing speakers about the different areas of focus and what they were doing in their parts of the world to solve the different issues. Adrian Hayes gave an amazing talk on seeing the global warming crisis not as merely an environmental issue but as a materialistic-social problem as well (which is very true). The current Rotary International President Ravindran also gave an enthralling speech on the importance of doing what you can to help others. He applauded us young leaders for attending the Convention to make a difference. Each speaker was wonderful, and as cheesy as it sounds, with each talk I was more inspired to go out immediately and take on the world! Serious drum players, May 27, 2016
The next day was the 3K Walk for Peace. We all woke up early, had breakfast, boarded the busses, and headed to the Seoul Gwanghwamun Square. From YLS there over 100 volunteers, and people from all parts of the world were dressed in their traditional cultural attire. Had I known, I would have worn one of my Ghanaian dresses! We picked up some more friends along the way and had a great marching, running, and jumping through the streets of Seoul. After the walk we had some time to view the vendors’ different wares. Afterwards we headed to a local school for lunch and some volunteer training for the weekend, and then it is was on to the Street Fair.
Lots of selfies this weekend, May 28, 2016
The Street Fair was another cultural explosion. There were people from all different walks of life mingling together, trying street food and buying different crafts. I chatted with some nice vendors from the Democratic Republic of The Congo and Nigeria. By that time, we were all pretty tired, but we had to get revved up for the Welcome Festival!
The Welcome Festival was amazing. As if the YLS wasn’t enough, the Welcome Festival showed off the very best of Korean culture, art, talent, and discipline. Display after display of fantastic colors and performance art bathed the huge audience. When it was time to head back to the hostel, we were all tired, but happy to have had the experience.
On Sunday morning it was time to volunteer at Kintex. I was more than ready to get my hands dirty and pitch in however I could. About five of us were assigned to the House of Friendship, which is exactly where I wanted to be. Half of us were in charge of the Zodiac Tree. Our job was to help people find out there zodiac tree and post a wish on the Zodiac Tree for the coming year. We were also responsible for helping people navigate the enormous Kintex building. I met some amazing people from all different parts of the world. Several Southeast Asians kept coming up to me and smiling. While many of them did not speak much English, they motioned at their phone and I knew they wanted to take a picture. I don’t know why this kept happening, but all I could figure was that they this was their first opportunity meeting a Black person. It was really cute and I was happy to be treated like a celebrity for a couple hours. After spending good time at the Zodiac Tree, Zuba and I meandered around the different booths.
There were so many stalls, and we had to move quickly to get to each one. We made it back to the Zodiac Tree just in time to head back to the other building for the Opening Ceremony. There we had lunch on the floor in a circle. As we ate, I couldn’t help but looking around and have a warm feeling deep on the inside. Multicultural experiences is what I live for, and this was certainly one of the greatest cultural exchanges of my life.
After lunch, we all crowded into the main room for the opening ceremony. A huge movie-like screen spanned half-way round the room with tremendous rainbow colors. We watched on as well-disciplined Korean youth showed off their Taekwando skills. RI President K. R. Ravindran took the stage and gave a speech in Korean which was also quite impressive. While I wanted to stay for the entire event, it was a Sunday afternoon and soon I would have to get back to the work week. I so didn’t want to go! Chloe and I said our goodbyes to the group and headed back to the Hi Seoul hostel. We chatted a bit, then collected my things and went downstairs where my friend came to pick me up and give me a ride home. It was so hard to say goodbye to my new dear friend, but fortunately, I got to see her and some of the others a few days later before they all went back to their respective countries.
As my friend drove me back to Mokdong, I couldn’t stop talking and thinking about the Convention. I’d had an incredible time and felt like a great burden had been lifted. Work and adjusting Korean life has been so difficult for me, and this was a huge uplift to my spirits. I was tired and had lost my voice from all the excitement. But somehow, I felt energized, invigorated, and ready for the work week ahead. It was the experience of a lifetime, and one I’m thankful to God for having.