Janice Clark said that “Today’s everything-available-at-all-times culture encourages putting off adulthood and commitment as long as possible—not to allow time to develop mature judgment and self-knowledge, but to keep it light, to jitter from smartphone to tablet and back again, quickly bounce away from any unpleasant experience and cultivate distraction at any cost. We can maintain, if we choose, a safe distance between ourselves and the world, a glowing screen as our shield, avoiding ever knowing ourselves or each other.”
I wanted to step beyond “the glowing screen” and break this life of being sheltered and complacent. It was August 2010. It all began the second I took my first step off the plane – when I took my first step onto Haitian ground. The landing was coarse and the entire airport consisted of patches and patches of uneven grass. I remembered thinking to myself, “are we really here?” I expected something a little less glorious than LAX; at least an airport with lights, lanes, structures, workers, and other airplanes. Instead, there were only patches and patches of grass. It was over 100 degrees outside with 70% humidity. It felt like a sauna, only I couldn’t be still, I had to keep moving. When I exited the airplane, sweat was dripping down my face so excessively it began to blur my vision if I didn’t wipe it off fast enough. The air was so thick I thought it was going to swallow my thoughts whole. I unconsciously began to envision an icy cold Mango-a-go Jamba Juice drink, something cool to distract my mind from these first hot, overwhelming minutes. Going through customs was another ordeal of yelling in Creole, more sweating, and just complete utter chaos. As team leader, I had to instinctively gather and account for my group of 30 17-18 year old high school students. I was only 19, about to enter my sophomore year of college. Before this, I thought I had everything; stellar resume, great family, bright future. I thought I had a clear sense of self. But that very moment I got off the airplane, I felt disoriented, lost, and found myself suddenly wishing I wasn’t there. A part of me wanted to go home and forgo this mission. But, I couldn’t. I silenced my fears and moved forward.
When my team and I arrived, we visited several refugee camps outside of the capital of Port Au Prince providing clean water, food supplements, and moral support. Back home, news of the 7.0 earthquake devastating the country of Haiti blurred among other world current events. It wasn’t my country, it wasn’t my life that was torn apart. I wasn’t displaced. It was irrelevant. But as I physically stood there, standing before the endless refugee camps, I saw that these temporary homes were made of scrap metal and cardboard. That these people just wanted to survive one more day. I met a woman named Zehira who through her tears shared her story about how she lost her home and had to provide for her four children. I held her hand and in that moment I smiled weakly, my words lost in translation, hoping to channel inner strength and encouragement from God knows where. I didn’t know how receptive she would be, whether she would find it offensive or just plainly ignore me. But Zehira returned my smile. And even though we didn’t speak the same language or were of the same color, we exchanged something that I believed to be so pure. And through this exchange of silent smiles, I found Zehira’s resilience to be inspiring. To smile with a life like this, with a home like this?! That even though she had nothing, she had everything. She put more value on her life that I’ve ever done for mine.
Being in a third world country, in the wake of a natural disaster with a position of responsibility, I felt as though I’ve aged, confronting the challenging realities of being an adult. My previous complaints and petty thoughts suddenly seemed trivial and small in comparison to this desolate country. My perspective, my attitude, my heart, and my dreams all gravitated toward a purpose greater than myself: a purpose to serve others and to have hope.
And so I’ve realized that my coming of age story isn’t of a cultural nor an ethnic celebration. But once past the turbulence of adolescence, I am always coming of age in some way, that personal growth and betterment are lifelong pursuits. And there will constantly be a celebration of myself, my heart, and my dreams blossoming into something more profound, breaking that safe distance between ourselves and instead, being in more solidarity with the world.
My life mantra: to live is to love. I am a recent college graduate, humanitarian, youth pastor, and aspiring international lawyer. I have served impoverished communities around the world in Haiti, Mexico, and South Korea and have advocated for human rights at Amnesty International. I currently have the honor of being in a position where I can impact my local youth ministry at KwangYum Community Church.