Prior to coming to Korea to do my fieldwork, I didn’t consider how much being the client would develop my insight and skill set as a social worker. I tended to focus on how my experience with ASK would be helpful in gaining skills as a macro level organizer and activist. I overlooked how profound my experiences receiving services as the client would be for my growth and development. I actually thought that my personal process would get in the way of my work, but it’s been quite the opposite. My personal experience as the client has enhanced my field work.
My first conscious awareness of my role as the client occurred to me only a few days after I arrived in Seoul. I was living in the KoRoot guest house at the time. There were some renovations happening in the house, so the people that were hired to do the work were frequently coming in and out. One morning, I was sitting at the communal dining table eating breakfast when one of the hired workers walked into the house for the first time. He was looking around, examining the space and all of the adoptee related artwork and posters on the walls, and then he looked at me. It seemed like he was examining me as well, like I was the subject of this charity home for adoptees.
What occurred to me in that moment was how I’ve walked into homes, halfway houses for the formerly incarcerated, safe houses for survivors of domestic violence, sober houses for recovering users, and perhaps the residents of these homes felt the same way I did sitting at the KoRoot table. Have I looked at people living in these houses like they were subjects receiving services? Without even saying anything, has my body language and have my facial expressions communicated something that felt disempowering to the people living in these homes?
That experience at the KoRoot dining table made me reflect on whether or not I respond to the labels we put on our clients before just responding to people as human beings. Do the labels our clients receive shape my thoughts and behaviors when I interact with them? It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that I’ve worked with clients without examining how their label influences my thinking and subsequent actions.
Since that moment eating breakfast at KoRoot, I’ve been the client in so many different capacities. I was the client sitting with a worker in the immigration office. I was the client who needed a worker to successfully open a bank account. I’ve been the client seeking advocacy services throughout my family search.
Through all of these experiences as the client, I think about how constantly needing help to do things from very basic to extremely complex can leave one feeling disempowered, weak, and frustrated. I have an improved awareness around what it means to work with people who don’t have access to systems, institutions, places, and things. I can make a commitment to myself as a social worker to see people as human beings first, and evaluate how their label affects my thoughts and behavior. I can make a commitment to empower people such that they are able to access what they need to help themselves.