My trip is coming to a close, and if you’ve followed along with all these postings, bless you! I’ve attempted to convey just some of the great experiences that I’ve enjoyed on this trip. One of the common topics of conversation at the end of each day starts with the question, “Was this a Top Five day?” It seems fitting to ruminate on this question, not a conversation-starter, but as a reflection for the whole trip.
Deciding on the top five has been really tough for me. The first three were easy — the drumming and musical, the visit to the DMZ, and getting to see the Seokguram Grotto and the end of the Silk Road are easy choices. The next two slots are much more difficult. Some of these I’ve written about, but others haven’t received any blogospheric attention because I haven’t had enough time to process what I’ve seen and then turn around and write about the experiences. Some of the early days seem so far away now, even though it’s only been two weeks, that more recent events seem more vivid in my memory. That’s how traveling and having a great time goes, though, isn’t it?
My experience at the local high school was wonderful, and I really enjoyed visiting the site where a great temple once stood, so those experiences are worthy of consideration if I’m rounding out my list. I also enjoyed listening to the Cheong Seong talk about Confucianism. The final experience that we had all together was at the Korean War Memorial, where we went to hear General Paik Sun Yup speak. General Paik has a fascinating, and controversial story — he is a retired four-star general from the ROK army and was instrumental in helping to secure South Korea after the war. He was a colonel during the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and was promoted quickly to General (one-star) at the age of 29. He talked about his experience in the Korean War and the rebuilding period after. After his talk I got to shake his hand and exchange business cards with him. Later, I started thinking that I shook the hand that shook the hand with people such as Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and heads of state from all over the world in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — that was pretty cool. Another wonderful day and powerful memory was from our visit to the Haeinsa Temple, which sits atop a mountain close to the city of Daegu. The ellaborate temple complex is a national treasure for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most significant reason is the Tripitaka Koreana is housed there. What’s that, you ask? It’s the entire teachings of Buddha on 80,000 wooden blocks. Seeing where they were stored was transcendental.
There are lots of other memories that don’t appear on the trip itinerary, too. Engaging with other teachers about our craft happened all the time and was incredibly valuable. Going to the FC Seoul professional soccer game as a group was really great, and there were numerous adventures into different parts of the city to try new food and see sights at night. One of my favorite nights was when four of us found a plastic picnic table outside a 7-11 to sit at in a trendy part of town one night. We sat there for almost two hours, snacking, sipping local rotgut, watching all the different people swarming past us. It was a terrific way to see the city. I also really enjoyed jogging near and along a lake out in the countryside and along the Han River in the city. Another treat was getting to see what the landscape of Korea looks like, which I spied through the window of a bus as we drove through the southern part of the country to various historical sites. Herodotus writes that geography is destiny, and I felt like I understood Korean more clearly after seeing the ubiquitous hills and countless, tiny farms that dot the countryside. The people who settled this land were, and are, resilient. I’ve enjoyed learning more about them, and doing so with a community of teachers who are passionate about what they do and how they do it. It’s made it easier to see the significance of what we’ve learned and seen since we’ve gone through a common learning experience.
I’m realizing that the process of picking a top five list from these wonderful experiences is not only difficult, it’s actually just plain absurd.
I’ll conclude my reflections succinctly: this has been a wonderful trip by any measurement. I am very grateful to the Korea Society for selecting me, to the Korea Foundation for financially supporting the program, to the other Fellows who participated and explored with me, and to you, for taking a few moments to read about some of my experiences.
There’s a joke in education circles that compares the orderliness of high school and elementary school teachers by comparing the two groups to European experiences. High school teachers are the service in a French Riviera cafe — you know, you’ll get your coffee eventually — while elementary school teachers are German train time tables — prompt and precise to the smallest detail. Actually, I think I just made that comparison up — but the sentiment of the difference between the two groups of teachers is well-known in educator circles.
I’ve been thinking about the order of things in the world for a couple of days now, since we visited Yangdong village, outside of the city Pohang. Yangdong is a traditional Confucian village, and has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site (we’ve seen dozens of UNESCO sites on this trip — the designation is a big deal here). This village is built along four ridges on two small mountains (we’d really call them hills) and has traditional houses — complete with thatch roofs, which were outlawed by President Pak a generation ago in the rest of Korea. The houses are small, and most have a low wall around each little compound to create small courtyards for each house. At the bottom of the hills are rice paddies, and small farms are in between just about every building.
I’m not sure how many people get to see this part of Korea, so I feel fortunate for the experience, but I didn’t know exactly what we were getting into when we arrived. Our purpose for this visit wasn’t just to see the village; we had a special audience with the Cheong Seong, or the village elder. The Cheong Seong is the 17th descendant in his family line from a once-great Korean academic. I think Cheong Seong means something like “first-born” and his role in this village is to basically look after his people, which are connected to him by family ties. He presides over nearly twenty official ceremonies here a year. One of the reasons we were coming to talk to him was he and the village are living examples of a Confucian community that goes back centuries. Because his village is a UNESCO site, their lives are on display constantly. It’s like they live in a museum and are part of the exhibit.
When we arrived at the village we walked up to his house — which is open to the public — and sat in this open receiving room that looks a little like a stage. We went up a short set of steps into a structure with a hard wood floor, a roof, but walls on only three sides. The Cheong Seong sat with us, and I got the feeling that he often holds audiences here. Through our professor, who translated our questions and his responses, we talked with him for about ninety minutes. In our time with him he tried to explain to us what living according to Confucian principles looks like.
One of the dynamic parts of Korean culture is its relationship to Confucianism. Confucius was Chinese, of course, and he established his ethical teachings in an attempt to gain influence in the court and bureaucracy of the Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century BCE. His teachings advocated filial piety and responsible behavior to one another. A westerner might quickly recognize Confucian teachings as ethics or moral codes, and assume it’s a religion. Confucius, however, was not interested in what happened after death, and there is no deity in Confucianism — it is completely focused on human behavior in this life. Korea, in some respects, has followed a purer form of Confucianism than China over the past 15 centuries for a variety of reasons, but Confucianism here is a little bit difficult to understand and first glance. For example, in modern polls about Korean religious practices about 2% of the population claims Confucianism as their religion — Buddhism and Christianity are the top two religions — but in cultural practice, practically all Koreans follow Confucian tradition. The greatest examples of common Confucian practice are the veneration of one’s ancestors, and the deference that is always given to elders, especially one’s parents. I was led to believe, though, that most people follow this practice out of tradition rather than active adherence to a Confucian way of life. Is it possible that some Koreans follow Confucian traditions without knowing it? I’m not sure.
In the Yangdong village, Confucian living is an active decision. The Cheong Seong explained to us that decisions are made entirely by consensus, but without voting, and that there’s been a resurgence in the popularity in Confucianism — he’s seen an increase in the number of people who have returned to his village after living in more modern situations — because of the order that these practices bring to our lives. He talked about the difference between moral codes and legal codes, and intimated that the further we rely on legal codes the more we crave moral codes, hence the resurgence in traditional living in Korea.
He also made some interesting comments about spirituality. Respect for nature is important, and the spiritual, he said, might find god in nature, but the Confucian doesn’t know about the world that he or she doesn’t know. Other religions are concerned with the parts of our world that we don’t know — for example, finding the divine in everything or thinking about what happens after we die — but focusing so much on what we don’t know sometimes causes us to miss out on this world. I really appreciated this sentiment, as did many others in my group.
The most compelling part of his talk for me came when he introduced the idea of Jeong to us. He, and some other Koreans we since talked to, have said the Jeong is a special Korean quality and it can’t really be translated or explained accurately. Our professor, who has been intimately connected to Korean culture and history for several decades, gave the translation a shot. Jeong, he said, is a special type of affection and concern for others. It’s the basic quality of a human being, and our professor attested to the fact that Koreans are incredibly concerned about others. Our concern for others is what makes us human, so I thought it was interesting that Koreans who have talked to us about Jeong therefore were suggesting that Koreans are more human than others. I may be over-interpreting this idea, but it’s been fruitful to think about as we’ve gone along on this trip.
Furthermore, the Cheong Seong’s comments seem to me to be connecting the idea that respect for others and the important relationships, leads to the creation of harmony, and the perpetuation of Jeong. These are all qualities, he says, that come from Confucian moral practices. In this context, ancestor worship, which is a central tenant in Confucianism, exists for followers to remember the greatness of those who have come before us so that we don’t think we are mightier than we really are. If we think we are greater than we really are we are likely to upset harmony. It made me think of the ancient Greek idea of hubris, which is ample supply in the west, right?
I walked away from our audience with the Cheong Seong appreciating Confucian living much more. After our talk, we were free to roam the four hills of the village, so I linked up with a couple other teachers to explore. We were honored to have the Cheong Seong’s eldest son, who is 14, show us around. He is the 18th Cheong Seong, and when his father passes on he will take the role of village leader. He showed us around the village, and talked to us a bit — his English is pretty good — but the most enjoyable part of spending time with him was watching him interact with the other people in this village. They’re his people. Most were much older than me, and I liked how he bowed sincerely to each one, and each person we encountered showed him clear respect and affection in return. He was clearly endearing to the people in this village, and it made me think that perhaps I was witnessing the harmony that comes from honoring relationships properly. I was witnessing more than just order and respect. There was great affection in the interactions between the young Cheong Seong and the other villagers. For a few moments I thought it might be really nice to live in this village.
Today was the day I’ve been fearing for weeks. It was the day we were scheduled to teach in a Korean high school. I was nervous.
I’m not kidding when I say that I was nervous about this day. I’ve known about it for months and it was bothering me. I was surprised that it was getting to me because I’m in front of students everyday. What I realized was there was a lot I didn’t know — for example, the students’ English proficiency, their interest in school, their willingness to have an American teacher come in to do some song and dance that wasn’t related to their regular classes. Plus, I did feel a little more was at stake if it didn’t go well, as if the students and teachers would think poorly about American or the American education system.
I decided on a final plan for my lesson over two weeks ago. We were supposed to have all of our materials lined up before we got to Korea. My “plan” was really more like a thinly plotted outline that involved getting them to practice speaking English and me talking a bit about American geography as I told them where I’m from and where I live. I wasn’t alone — there were the three dozen other teachers on this trip with me, but when I asked around about their lesson plans for the day, it made me feel worse, not better. Several people had fancy maps, decorated with two-dimensional features; others had sophisticated props. One guy was planning to do a document analysis from Susan B. Anthony’s diary. Good grief.
The rain from the last several days broke this morning and was replaced by the hot sun. It was out early this morning as I jogged by the river, and so when I returned to my room to get ready, I had a good, it’s-really-hot-out, and a I’m-really-nervous sweat going. It got cranked up a couple of notches after I put on my shirt, tie, dress pants and shoes, and wool sport coat. Yikes. I sweated profusely all forty minutes in the bus to the school. I tried to psych myself up to be the ambassador of good will and education as we rode along the highway. I went over my plan in my head, chatted with a few others about their plans until their superior organization started to make me feel self-conscious again. I consoled myself by thinking that the students wouldn’t know that much English, so going slow was a good idea, and simple was better.
We arrived, and a welcome committee greeted us in the parking lot. There’s a specific student-guide assigned to each of us, and mine, Seokjoo, walked right up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “Hi Mr. Ranson, welcome to our school.”
Shit, he speaks perfect English. Sweat was rolling again in sheets down my back, and for the first time today I was happy to have a thick sport coat to hide my soaked shirt. I commented to Seokjoo that his English is very good. He thanked me and replied, “I lived in Boston for a couple of years. Most of the students in my grade have lived in America.” Now I’m thinking the document analysis might be a good idea, and my lesson plan is totally hosed.
We were ushered into the auditorium, which is one of those gems you’d see in an American high school built in the Eisenhower Administration, where the auditorium, gymnasium, and theater are all in the same space. The Vice Principal addressed us formally with a speech, then three students, speaking excellent English, led us in some trivia games about the school. They also showed us a video and then we are off to our classrooms.
Another teacher and I were to share one classroom and time period, so we gathered outside the classroom in the hall. Our room was at the end of a long corridor, so as we walked down it I felt the buzz from the other rooms as teachers entered each one. My student guide told me that the two teachers should enter the room first when he opens the the door, then without waiting, he flung it open. In we went, and, to my surprise, they cheered like crazy.
I could get use to this.
The lesson went fine: the students were a year younger than my guide, and it turns out that only about ten percent had already spent time in North America, although they all seemed to both get and like my jokes, which is a rarity with my English-speaking constituents. This group gamely practiced speaking English, and were fascinated to hear that I live 3,000 miles from the place I grew up. They were enthusiastic, attentive, and willing to engage with me. I was very pleased, maybe feeling a little triumphant, thinking that I had fulfilled my unofficial role as ambassador well. The time passed very quickly; actually, I was disappointed it ended so soon.
My visit today taught me a couple of things. For starters, the typical Korean high school goes from 7am to 11pm, six days a week (although they get out early on Saturday). Students eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at their school, and they don’t typically know students from other grades. Evidently the school officials discourage mingling between classes because they fear the students will develop social hierarchies that will cause trouble. I also learned that school quality in Korea is determined solely by the number of students who gain admission to the three top-tier universities in the country. Nothing else matters, and for that reason, the students are not permitted to play extracurricular sports (they don’t even exist). They are to study constantly in order to gain admission to the best universities possible. Most high school students sleep less than five hours per night. Seokjoo said he didn’t like school and was basically miserable (although he said these things cheerfully) because it was such a grind. Then it dawned on me that the reason the students cheered so mightily when I entered the classroom was they were really happy to have a break from their normal, intense routine.
Over the course of my time in Korea I have heard Obama’s comments about Korean Education (in 2009) referenced at least five different times by the Korean professors in our seminars. They all took issue with Obama because he praised a system that produces a lot of college graduates, but is also unbelievably stressful on students and parents alike. Education isn’t a joke here. Students’ jobs are to study, and that’s it.
This pressure isn’t really new, although more are feeling it than in previous eras. For centuries, education has been seen as the way of increasing the prestige of the family. Men could raise the social, political and economic status of their entire family by passing the civil service exam, which was a tough test; more recently, women with college degrees would garner the attention of the most desirable husbands. Today, 80% of Korean high school students go on to graduate from college, but while the graduation rate is impressive, the cultural road to get there is rough beyond what is accepted in the U.S. in most cases.
At the end of my visit today I met a dozen or so students who chatted with me during a break between classes. Three of them had lived in the U.S. for long periods of time — one not far from me in Maryland where he’d spent six years. All three longed to go back to America where education isn’t nearly as stressful. The kid from Maryland talked openly about the tension he felt between living in Korea, his homeland, and wanting to go to school in the U.S. where the stress wasn’t so punishing and the stakes weren’t so high.
American education has taken a political (and economic) beating recently, and it still has a lot of issues to work out. I have often said recently that American education is in crisis. Those sentiments were contrasted sharply today by these students who were miserable in this high-stakes education society. I was and still am struck by how much they wanted to go to American schools. It was a little perspective that I don’t often get, but, today, as I sweated through my coat, I was grateful for it.
We were told that these students will always remember our visit today, but I think I’m the one who will never forget it.
We’re in day two of a five day “field trip,” where we are touring the southern parts of the Korean peninsula. Seoulites evidently refer to anything outside of the Seoul as the “country side,” which is a bit like called northern New Jersey rural compared to Manhattan. There is noticeably more lush, green space along the highways as it is the rainy season and fields are reflecting the ample watering their receiving. Korea is a mountainous land, so rolling hills there and jagged contours there are common. It’s beautiful land to look at, even if visibility is limited due to smoky rain clouds congregating on low mountain tops.
We’ve seen a lot of museums in our two days on the road so far. There’s been visits to temples, tombs, a National Museum at Gyeongju, and a printing-press museum. Our time on the bus — three or four hours a day — is narrated by an American professor who is an expert on Korean culture and history. His knowledge is impressive as he can go on and on with personal and historical anecdotes, and he’s got a sense of humor, too. One example came today. Now the professor is he’s Mormon, so using profanity isn’t on the spectrum for him, but today we were about to visit a site where there once was a Buddhist temple of incredible size. It was a walled compound of several hundred acres that included statues dozens of feet tall, a temple bell that weighed at least 30 tons, and a 9-level pagoda over 60 meters tall (one level for each of the kingdoms in Korea and China it wished to conquer). To emphasize the size, scope, and importance of this temple, which was destroyed perhaps 800 years ago, our professor called it a “Joe Biden Big Deal.”
I had to think about this one for a minute. I was pretty excited to be at the site. The central point of the pagoda, where the corner stone was laid, is perfectly inline with the mountain peak due south, another due east, another due west, and, of course, the last one due north. The temple here was probably the center of political and social activity during the Silla dynasty. The Silla dynasty was the first to unify the Korean peninsula, which was no small feat. The Silla dynasty collapsed many centuries later, and the temple was probably burned down by the invading Mongols. It’s likely that they or the Joseon Dynasty, which was Confucian and anti-Buddhist, melted down the enormous bell and made cannon out of it. To destroy this temple was a significant symbol of power. The temple here wasn’t a perfunctory structure; it was perhaps the center of the Korean world a thousand years ago. To walk where we walked would have been a big deal, or as Joe Biden said a few years ago, “A big f–ing deal.”
Then it hit me: our professor doesn’t swear. Instead, he invokes the name of one of the great swearers in our time for effect, and hence we have a “Joe Biden Big Deal.” Now what’s not to like about that kind of story?
All that remains of the once-glorious temple are the pillar footprints in the ground. Walking among them today in the rain made me feel like I’d come upon giants’ footsteps in the sand and the beach. I could only imagine what was once here and marvel at the imaginings. It made me think if I ever had a time machine, I’d really like to come back here to see what it looked like with my own eyes. I’ll bet that Biden would appreciate seeing it, too.
90 minutes ago I was standing in North Korea territory. How’s that for a lead?
I was trying to think of something to compete with the first sentence of the waiver I signed to visit the De-Militarized Zone at Pammunjom. That one goes: “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Pammunjom will entail [entry] into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”
This visit for me has been a long time coming. I’ve basically been waiting 20 years for it. If you’ve followed the other stories on this blog you’ll know that I visited South Korea in 1992. I got sick though, and on the day we were scheduled to visit the DMZ I was too ill to make the trip. I stayed at the hotel watching Hong Kong MTV while my dad and brother went without me, so I was thrilled to finally go today.
You’ll also remember that I am traveling with nearly 40 other American social studies teachers, so I wasn’t the only one excited for this trip. It’s an all-day affair to get there, which is strange because Pammunjom is only 40 kilometers from downtown Seoul. If you’re wondering what took so long, you weren’t alone. I saw the schedule and asked what took so long if it’s so close but it wasn’t really explained. According to our schedule we’d leave at 8am and would return around 4:30pm. I knew from my brother’s account two decades ago that the time at the DMZ isn’t that long.
The reason, I learned, that it takes all day to visit the DMZ is there are three bus changes, four stops where we all get on and off the bus for photo ops, lunch, and three passport control checks before we got to our destination. All of these things happened between 8am and 1:30pm, and was frankly tedious. We got a special tour guide just for the day (you evidently need a special certification to go to the DMZ as a South Korean – PRK officials are afraid if any-old South Koreans were permitted at the DMZ they would defect to the North and the PRK would have to accommodate untold numbers of political refugees), and she told us that the morning would be relaxing but the afternoon would be “quite a tense time.”
I would say the morning was antagonizing – all the waiting made me feel like I was 7 and it was Christmas Eve, but the day was never-ending. Driving there took forever because we stopped every twenty minutes for a photo op. Now, I imagined that the territory approaching the DMZ would be empty. I figured South Koreans wouldn’t choose to live so close to a hostile line separating two antagonistic nations. I was wrong. There are farms and apartment buildings, strip malls, gas stations, churches, and car dealerships on the road to Pammunjom. It makes the approach anticlimactic. The photo op stops were at two separate memorial locations, each of which contained several memorials to groups of people and individuals who have died during and since the invasion that started Korean War. These memorials seem to be tourist traps now – there are amenities available that seem to cater to bus-tours, and I’ve been to so many of these types of rest stops over the years that it was hard to keep in mind that we were headed to the DMZ.
That feeling changed after lunch when we arrived that the restricted area close to the border. The tour guide’s tone changed – she dropped the abundant cheery demeanor that she offered in the morning – and a South Korean guard, with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, came on to inspect passports. Having that gun dangle in my face ratcheted up my anxiety. The inspection was followed by instructions that we were not to take photos of anything we saw out of the windows of the bus, which included camouflaged artillery, mine fields, anti-tank obstacles and two razor wire fences. After seeing all this, my blood was pumping and the tension on the bus was palpable. Few people spoke; most had mouths agape as they stared at this strange world we’d entered.
The DMZ is three miles wide, and what surprised me is that there are quite a number of rice farms that we passed. We were told that there are South Korean farmers who work the land in exchange for government subsidies and lowered tax rates. The rice paddies have become home to an abundance of egrets – the graceful white birds that are often called cranes or storks . There are also quail, mockingbirds, and herons that roam without restriction here. The egrets, though, are the most ubiquitous. I even saw dozens sitting in trees, which I’d never seen before. In Maryland and DC they stick mostly to the marsh. It was wonderful to see so many of their bright white profiles set against the lush green background of rice paddies and abundant forest.
Once all the checks were completed and all the instructions were issued, we made our way to the Freedom House, where we lined up two-by-two. Freedom House is a three-story building that commands a view of the entire Pammunjom area. It was tough to imagine what the surrounding area looks like because low clouds impeded the view. But it’s not like I was going to admire the view anyway – I was there today to witness the excitement of a political stalemate. Here’s what it looks like: surveillance cameras everywhere, tense guards standing in defensive positions, drab buildings, concrete barriers, and the smell of fear.
Atop the Freedom House are the dozens of security cameras pointed to a corresponding building 300 feet north of it, where the PRK’s own building stands. In between the two are temporary huts, which are painted blue, and straddle the border between the North and South. The blue huts are technically conference rooms, and they are where the “negotiations” between the two Koreas have taken place over the years. The conference room in the middle of it is bisected by the border. How cute.
There’s about a hundred feet between the Freedom House and the conference huts, and when we walked out of the Freedom House, the South Korean guards on duty outside, snapped to “defensive stances” where they turned to face the lone North Korean guard 200 feet away. They remained in their stance for the entirety of our time there. We were quickly ushered into the conference room, where we stood in North Korean territory, even though it was indoors. I have to admit that in this room which was about the size of the inside of a typical mobile home, I was pretty excited. The rest of the teachers were geeked-up out of their minds, too. We had about four minutes in the room to take as many photos as we could. Between the 40 of us, I think we took 8,000 pictures. It’s a safe bet that our poor students next year will get to look at every single photograph.
As we walked in our lines back to the Freedom House from the conference huts, I noticed that the North Korean guard examined us through high powered binoculars. I was surprised by how exhilarated I felt. I wondered if the guards there feel anything similar, or if it’s just work for them to play this game. So much of it appears to be posturing but maybe the soldiers here believe that the North Koreans could come storming across again at any moment.
Once back inside the Freedom House, and out of the eye of the guard and the dozens of cameras the North has pointed at the South, a teacher from Detroit turned to me and, with an enormous smile, said, “That was like Christmas.”
I wish the story ended there. There’s one last part that kills me. There’s a dress code here – to visit you are prohibited from wearing blue jeans and shirts with logos because those are symbols of capitalism, and the PRK would feel antagonized to see visitors from the ROK decked out in such garb. It was hard for me to believe this was a real thing, but it is a very big deal. So anyway, capitalism is an issue here, right? Check this out: We returned to the so-called visitor center, where there actually is a gift shop. In less than 15 minutes in that shop, my group and another bus-load of visitors that went through the visit with us probably spent $2000 on mementos. Ah, capitalism. I can’t stop laughing when I think about this.
FC Seoul scores the go-ahead goal in the final minutes of home match.
The program of study for this program is in full swing now. For the first eight days of the program we go to school at the Korea University, which was the first university in the country founded by Koreans. Established in 1905, it is now the most prestigious university in the country, and it has the support of the major Korean industries. There’s the LG Hall, Samsung Hall, for example. The campus is beautiful — built on a hill, nicely designed buildings, great green space; we’re lucky to spend time here.
Yesterday was the first day, and for each academic day we have three sessions of 90 minutes each. There will be 8 academic days, and 24 lectures in total. The sessions are lectures by academic experts, most of whom teach at universities. Yesterday’s topics were really interesting: Korean language; Korean Art History; and Korean Symbols, Values & Norms. It was a terrific way to start our study because the conversation throughout the day was about Korean culture. Yesterday was a great story-telling day. The art history professor told a great story to start her lecture. She was born in Korea but grew up on 4 different continents, and ultimately was in middle school in the US. She credited her social studies teacher, who, by demonstrating what it meant to be American by reading Emerson, Twain, & Baldwin, helped her begin to understand what it meant to be Korean. She chose to pursue art history because it helped her understand what it meant to be Korean. Her lecture was wonderful.
Today’s topics were about Korean economics, population growth, and “The North Korean Problem.” The last lecture on the North Korean problem was excellent. It was given by a professor who is also an “Expert Adviser” to the South Korean Prime Minister. His lecture presented us with the various tactics that have been used to approach North Korea about its nuclear weapons program, and the difficulties therein. His lecture prompted the most questions from us, which were about the strategies used to engage the PRK, the stakeholders and long-term interests that each nation involved in the 6 Party Talks has. I was energized, and I had to remind myself that we were talking about an issue that could result in massive death and destruction if it goes poorly. That took me down a few pegs.
After the lectures we were wisked away to the National Museum of Korea, which houses the National Treasures of Korea, as well as around 250,000 other artifacts. It’s an unbelievable physical space — the museum has been open in its current building for only five years (the museum has existed for over a century) and I can’t remember another art/culture museum that even is close to the size and scope of this place. We were there for two hours and got a docent-led tour of 15 important artifacts. She said if we took in the entire collection that is on display it would take two full days. We looked mostly at artifacts native to Korea: Buddha statues, a royal pagoda, burial crowns and impressive gold jewelry, glassware that is believed to have come via the Silk Road from Rome, and elaborate incense burners that display Taoist and Buddhist motifs. My favorite artifact is the “Pensive Bodhisattva” which is a wonderful sculpture of devotion and technical skill. I wished I had my students there to witness it in person. It was quite moving.
We’ve been moving around a lot via bus, subway, and on foot, so I’ve had some time to make various observations about the city. I’ll note a few of them here, and these are in relation to my visit here when I was 16.
I remember from 1992 that all of the cars in Seoul were black or dark blue Hyundai sedans. I noted at the time that I’d never seen so many Hyundais because they were relatively new to the US market. Today, there are very few dark colored cars by comparison. There are white cars, red cars, blue cars, and orange taxis. Hyundai cars are all over the place, but so are Volkswagon, Mini Coopers, BMWs, and Lexus. It might sound like a trival thing if you haven’t been here, but the point is that the city seems more alive, more diverse than it did when I was here before.
Another difference I remember is from what is on the television. I have vivid memories of watching MTV from Hong Kong in 1992. Now MTV doesn’t exist in Korea. The VJs (Video Jockeys — remember them?) were broadcasting truly international videos — first a western pop or rock song, then a Hindi dance tune. My brother and I howled at the Hindi dance videos and preferred the MTV that gave you news from Jakarta and Bangkok to what was available States-side. MTV has been replaced by K Pop, which is Korean pop music. It’s a phenomenon that is worth at least a momentary glance, if you’re not familiar with it. K Pop is extraordinarily popular among middle school aged Koreans. In short it is pop music, performed by young, hip, usually boy singing groups. Boy bands in the US and the UK have been around for sometime, so it’s not like this is a new thing, but what makes K Pop notable in my opinion is the production value. Watching a live performance on T.V. or Youtube is best, and you only need to watch three or so songs to get the idea of what the genre looks like. I am really impressed by the coordination of the music and dancing, the costumes, and the on-stage presence by the performers who are young and probably have phalanxes of handlers, trainers, designers, and producers to create what you see, but it’s worth it. Several of the teachers in this program work in middle schools or junior high schools, and most of them have been instructed (not asked) by their students to bring back K Pop music. To “listen” to the music misses what makes it significant. You really need to watch it in my opinion, because it is definitely more a visual performance than a musical experience. Watch with an eye for the details and you will absolutely find it fulfilling. You even like it (I won’t tell!). Check out this link for a taste.
I’ll sign off here for now. Tomorrow we’re going to the theatre and heavy rains are forecast. I can’t wait!
I just got back from a fantastic evening. The group spent the afternoon on the town doing several activities which I’ll get to later. The itinerary for our Saturday evening activity listed simply “Theatre Arts Performance: Traditional Korean Performance” so I didn’t know what to expect. I asked some questions but the responses weren’t specific. What I learned was we were going to see a musical theatre performance that was based on an old Korean folktale. When we arrived, an hour before curtain, we were ushered into the theatre, and asked to remove our shoes. It’s customary to remove your shoes in restaurants and in people’s homes, so I didn’t quite understand why we had to do it in the theatre, but I complied. When I got my shoes off the usher beckoned for me to go on stage — we all were invited on stage where there we rows of drums laid out. I nearly shrieked with glee when I registered that we were getting a drumming lesson. It was wonderful. Our teacher was excellent: he was patient, articulate, and didn’t speak a word of English, but it worked to his advantage. All of us were focused on the same thing at the same time for the first time all week. He walked us through five or six basic beats, then put the whole thing together for a Gene Krupa-inspired drumming session. All told, it lasted for 20 minutes, and I doubt I’ll ever forget it. However, in case I do forget, we now live in the digital age, and we got some of it on video. Check it out.
The fun didn’t stop there. We stayed for the show, which is called “Miso.” Miso is an open run original Korean musical at the Chongdong Theater in Seoul, and its the star-crossed lovers archetype set to live music, involving dance, some Vaudeville-style entertainment, and battles between good and evil. The costumes were the vibrant traditional silk jeogori — the two piece robes from the Three Kingdoms Period — and were matched nicely with a combination of traditional dance and the moves you’d see from Gene Kelley. The story is of Miso told without dialogue: there’s a narrator character who sings the story at certain points, but the music and dance really tell the story. The show isn’t long — 90 minutes or so — but it’s certainly moving. More than a few in the audience were wiping their eyes by the curtain call. The combination of the drumming and the show were the highlights of the trip so far for me.
Those who know me and my history know that I’ve got a thing for theatre, and it’s only reinforced on nights like this one where really powerful emotions were communicated effectively without words. I wrote years ago after watching a Mariachi band perform in San Antonio about the power of live theatre and live music to transcend language and social strata to evoke human emotions. It’s been a while since I’ve seen something performed in another language, but I’m overjoyed at being reminded about how wonderful the experience is.
June 27th was my first full day in Seoul in almost 20 years. I visited in December 1992 with my dad and brother on an inauspicious trip that is memorable mostly for what a bummer it was — I got the flu after the first night and was in bed for most of that trip. So, this trip, which I’m on because I was selected to participate in the Korea Society Summer Fellowship, made me nervous. In my application to the Korea Society I stated that, if selected, my goals would be to bring Korean history and culture back to my students in Maryland. Secretly my real goal was to make to the second day of the trip without puking.
By this high bar of expectation, this trip is a success. I still haven’t tried eating “Korean Chinese food” which was the last thing I ate before things went south in ’92 (I have an incredible memory of what I ate just before I’ve been sick) but it’s not like I’ve been chowing down on McDonald’s, Popeye’s or KFC, which are in shocking abundance here.
Speaking of food, my first full day in Seoul started with breakfast at the hotel restaurant, which offered one of the most sublime breakfast options ever: Tater Tots. I know I just knocked American fast food, but c’mon, when was the last time you saw Tater Tots as a breakfast option. I totally went back for seconds.
The post-Tater Tot plan for the day was a city tour with the other 40 teachers participating in this program. The idea was to learn how to ride the subway, visit a palace and a museum, eat lunch together, then have some free time. Off we went in two semi-organized groups. One might think that teachers are accustomed to going on field trips, so doing something like this — taking a large group of people who don’t know each other, and who are jet-lagged, into a country where they don’t speak the language — wouldn’t be a problem. One would be wrong for thinking this. We emerged from our hotel looking more like hungry alley cats and an organized group. Teachers in larger numbers are probably a sociologist’s dream to observer because we all are accustomed to being the leader, so being a follower is pretty tough, and everyone has an opinion about what we should do next (mind you, only two of the forty have been to this country before). So getting started was fun.
Our first challenge was to buy tickets for the subway and then to ride it. Now, in a city like Washington, D.C., this task with so many people would look like the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, but luckily this is Seoul and the subway system is clean, safe, on-time, and is remarkably easy to navigate, even if you don’t understand Korean. Crisis averted.
We made our way to Gyeongbokgung, also known as the Palace of Shining Happiness. This involved getting off the subway and walking several blocks to a major boulevard in downtown Seoul that is lined with important buildings like a performing arts center, industry headquarters, and museums. Gyeongbokgung is at the end of this major road, which has four lanes of traffic in each direction, divided by a median that is around 200 feet wide. This median is a pedestrian mall of sorts, with enormous monuments to notable Korean figures. The statue of King Sejung was most impressive to me. It’s a golden stature at least 20 feet tall, sitting atop a concrete base of at least 15 feet. About a quarter mile behind him is the palace, and behind the palace are mountains, so with the width of this boulevard and the size and distance between the statues and the palace, there’s a terrific sense of space here in the middle of the city. Seoul, by the way, is heavily populated by tall buildings that stretch up to the sky and spread out like dominoes in all directions for miles. I’ve only been here a short while and I already appreciate the openness on this main artery in town.
King Sejung is honored here because he dramatically improved Korean society during the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1897. Perhaps the most audacious reform King Sejung introduced was a create a new alphabet which he created himself (according to legend). The gist of his story is that he recognized that in Korea’s agrarian society most men and women would remain illiterate as long as their written language was expressed in by Chinese characters. Yeomen farmers just didn’t have the time to spare to learn it the 3000 or so characters in the Chinese alphabet because they had to, you know, work. So in an attempt to establish a connection with his people, King Sejung invented a new alphabet of 28 unique characters. His thought was that all his people should be able to learn the alphabet and thereby read about the policies he was making, thus connecting them to his work. I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, a king who actually cared about his subjects? When did he do all this?” He rolled out the new alphabet, called Hanguel, in 1446.
King Sejung’s golden likeness proceeds Gyeongbokgung, or the Palace of Shining Happiness, as I mentioned above. So on to the palace: One of the things that makes the Palace of Shining Happiness so happy is that the palace looks like it is from a heavenly place as it is nestled at the base of a mountain and only the rocks and blue sky appear to be near it. The palace entrance is carved wood painted green, red and yellow, and is guarded by men in wonderfully bright silk robes. Their traditional outfits are replicas from the 15th century and are both imposing and inviting at the same time. The relatively low walls are made of large blocks of granite, planed smooth. Inside, the gravel courtyards are larger than a baseball field. The grounds also are home to totems from the ancestral worship that began nearly a millennia ago in Korea. These totems are simple — Korean characters burned in the base of a narrow plank of wood, with a carefully carved countenance atop each one. There’s a folk museum here, too, which has a lovely collection of artifacts from Korean culture going back 1200 years or so. Not much is in English, but even so, I got a distinct story of the Korean people going back many centuries. Their artifacts are sophisticated, beautifully crafted, and unique to Korea.
My favorite part of the artifacts on display on the palace grounds is a section outside where there are rows and rows of carved stones of men holding scrolls under their chins. Each has a stylized hat on, so that the figures are apparently identical. It’s a bit impressive to see so many of the same figures lined up together. I thought they were sages of some sort, offering to pass on Confucian wisdom.
Not exactly. They would have been educated by Confucian teachings but these statutes actually were . . .
Yes, in the good old days of Korean culture, dozens — no, hundreds — of sculptures were made of bureaucrats. To be clear, these are the equivalent to positions at the Motor Vehicles Department, or accountants in the mayor’s office in today’s America. Imagine living in a world where those jobs were envied. (And contrast it with the current mania in parts of America to do away with government). Once in Korea, and elsewhere in Asia for that matter, passing the exams to become an official of the state was a very big deal. It brought status to the individual and the family, and put one on the path to a better life. Imagine.
Outside the palace is an area where the government officials once lived. This area now is called Samcheongdong, and is known in Seoul as a funky, artsy community. There are murals on the walls, carefully-carved waterfalls, restored pagoda homes, trendy clothing shops, hand-made tea set shops, and art galleries all over. It reminded me of some of the smaller streets in Beverly Hills. We stopped just outside this area for lunch. I went with a smaller group to a restaurant owned and operated by a woman who does all the cooking and serving in a 8 – table shop. I chowed down on vegetarian bibemop made by a woman who looked to be in her 60s. The food was great, but I mention the place here because to find this small restaurant run by this woman was significant for a couple of reasons. The most obvious is that it’s amazing that she can afford the rent in this area, but the greater significance is that the phenomenon of a woman-owned business is only a generation old. Women were not permitted to work outside the home in most cases in Korea until around the 1960s, so to see her running her own shop entirely on her own deserved recognition. I’m not sure exactly what it means for Korea — for example, I’m not sure if this is common or what — but I hope that will be more clear in the coming weeks.
After lunch I teamed up with two other teachers on this trip and walked a couple miles across the city, looking a buildings, getting lost down different alleys, generally taking in the sites. The excursion came to a close at Namdaemun Market, which I’d remembered from my visit here in 1992. It’s an outdoor market that stretches for several blocks on narrow streets where you can find clothes, jewelry, trinkets, random food stalls, household items, spices, and — my personal favorite — pig’s head. There’s a lot of fresh fish, dried fish, recently-caught fish, but I knew when I saw the bisected roasted pig’s head that my work that day was done.
It was a long day, but a wonderful way to meet the city. I liked seeing the old stuff and the new parts of the city. Most of all, I loved not getting sick within 24 hours of landing. I’m looking forward to the rest of this trip!
I remember the first time I saw someone in an airport with a gun: I was in Luxor, Egypt, in 1998 returning to Cairo from a visit to the Valley of the Kings and the other sites along the river. The airport there is very small — only two gates if memory serves — and I remember distinctly a man in white who walked to the metal detector, removed a pistol from a belt holster under his linen coat, placed the gun on the table in front of a security guard, walked through the metal detector (it still beeped), then reached back for his weapon and holstered it again. He gave the security guard and his partner a warm hand-shake a kiss on either cheek (a customary greeting among men in Egypt) and they laughed like old friends. My eyes were saucer-wide open watching this interaction while the other dozen or so people in the waiting area quietly watched the World Cup match on the television. The man with the gun in the airport deserved no attention in their eyes while I couldn’t look away due to my astonishment on such a casual interaction involving a firearm. What I gathered from observing the man in white and the other men in uniforms was a high-ranking police official. Had I understood what they were saying to each other, I might not have been so concerned by the cavalier response to a man in plain clothes with a gun in a small regional airport.
I’m starting this trip and this blog with this memory because as I sat in the Bradbury Terminal at LAX awaiting my flight to Seoul, Korea, I was only 30 feet from a uniformed Los Angeles Police Officer a sizable machine gun. What is remarkable is how normal this is to all the people milling around here. No one is staring or doing double-takes at him. No one else seems unnerved by how large the gun is, what it’s purpose is, why the office is even standing there, or by the fact that his hand grips the gun firmly, with his index finger just an inch from the trigger. This scene is a reminder that there is a constant threat of violence now that didn’t exist not-so-long-ago. The threat is heightened at airports, obviously, but travelers seem to have accepted this officer and his colleagues-in-arms as necessary or natural accouterments
There’s a bit of irony I’m seeing here, too. My reason for being in this situation — the international terminal at the airport — is that I am going on an educator trip to Korea to learn about Korean history, politics, education, and culture, so that I can teach my high school students, and other teachers, about Korea. There’s an implicit idea here that education breaks down barriers, makes connections between countries and individuals, and may even improve the quality of life of those impacted by the newly-formed connections. My peaceful endeavor is shadowed by the prevention of — by threatening to use — violence.
So, against a backdrop of violence, I will endeavor to do something peaceful.