February 2009 

Dear fellow Rotarians,

I grew up in a small village, the same village where my family had lived for many generations. I lived close to many members of my extended family, and our family traditions were very strong. In those days, few Koreans ever traveled abroad, and there was very little Western influence. My home, my language, and my culture were all I knew.

When I was in my 20s, I made a decision that would shape the rest of my life. With my father’s encouragement, I traveled to the United States to work and to study. I chose San Francisco as my destination and spent nearly two years there, taking classes and learning English. I made my way working at several entry-level jobs.

It is difficult even today to describe what an impact that experience had on me. Everything, and everyone, was different. I was used to seeing only Korean faces; in San Francisco, I saw people from all over the world. I worked hard on my English and in my job. I learned what it was like to be the person who did not understand, who cleaned up after others, who took orders but never gave them. I learned how large the world outside my village really was. And those experiences sent me back to Korea changed.

When I returned to join my father’s business in Seoul, I knew what it was like to be a worker at the bottom of an organizational hierarchy – and that affected how I treated my employees. I knew what it was like to do physical labor all day – and that gave me increased respect for those who worked in every kind of job. Perhaps most important, I knew how much of the world lay beyond my own experience. I knew that there were so many different countries and cultures, so many different people in the world. I knew that as much as we are all different, we are all essentially the same. And I knew that everyone, everywhere, sometimes needs help from others.

In Rotary, February is World Understanding Month – a time to focus on the importance of goodwill and understanding for peace. It is a time for all of us to pause and consider how we are pursuing Rotary’s fourth Avenue of Service – International Service – because it is our international service, and our international fellowship, that will do the most to help us all build a more peaceful tomorrow.

Dong Kurn (D.K.) Lee
President, Rotary International