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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Aged-Out in Korea

There are certain realities attached to aging. The good parts are about being wiser, more experienced, and basically, having had a chance to visit more places and meet a wider, more colorful rainbow of people. The flip side of aging, of course, is the stereotyping, the discounting, the outright discrimination, including being treated differently simply because of the number that follows your name.

Several years ago when I was looking for a university English teaching gig in South Korea, I blanketed the country with cover letters and resumes. One memorable encounter came as a result of responding to a posting of an opening at Woosong University. Woosong, a large Korean university, is conveniently located in Daejon, smack in the middle of South Korea. I was rewarded with an invite to interview on Skype. As it turned out, the video function did not work on my end. But no problem, we continued with the audio portion, which was working just fine. By "we," I am referring to the 4 interviewers stationed in Korea, and me.

A Skype interview. Mine was with Woosong University

I thought the interview went really well. We said good-bye, I clicked a button, and somehow, to my utter surprise, the audio remained on. I began listening in to the discussion about me taking place amongst the interviewers. "He's was pretty good," said one, starting off the conversation. Another offered, "Yeah, but did you notice his age?" "Right," says another, "He's about 60!" The conversation continued back and forth, and I realized I was grabbing on even deeper to their conversation. Feeling like a voyeur, I clicked a few icons to try to get Skype to shut down, so I could disconnect from my frustration.

A few days later, the expected email arrived: I hadn't made the cut for the next round of interviews. I decided to let the interviewers know that I overheard their conversation and that I felt I was being judged for my age and not for my skills and experiences. I even quoted some of what I had heard. Back came a rather nasty letter accusing me of being unethical. I appreciated their concern, being caught red-handed, as they were, discriminating based on my age. The story has a happy ending though. I soon interviewed with another university, was offered a position, and taught there for 5 rewarding years.

Discrimination because of someone's age, isn't just about giving wings to your biases, it's ultimately about limiting the capacity of your organization. According to an article in the Korea Herald, older people, on average, tend to be more focused at work, less distracted, and more able to zero-in to the task on hand than younger workers. The same article noted that age discrimination is widespread in Korea, despite legislation to prevent it. Axel Borsch, of the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy, points out that "on balance older employees' productivity and reliability is higher than of their younger colleagues."

In my case, during my 4th year at Yeungnam University, the school that ultimately hired me, I received the Director's Award, including a cash prize, for having the highest student evaluation scores amongst our teaching staff of nearly 50. It would appear that in the eyes of students, at least, I was able to perform the job, and do it well. 

Receiving the Director's Award for teaching excellence in 2016
from the Foreign Language Institute at Yeungnam University

In spite of laws to prevent age discrimination, Korea has a well known history of retiring workers in their 50s and 60s. My former Korean university has a standing practice of not rehiring any faculty member who has turned 65. But it wouldn't be honest to say it's only Koreans treating older people this way. Of those 4 people who interviewed me at Wooseong University, only one was Korean. The three others hailed from the UK, Canada and Australia. It seems that age discrimination isn't just one country's problem. The reality attached to aging? Skip the stereotypes. Older workers, like everyone else, should be judged for what they have to offer a business, school, or other organization. Anything less, is certainly a loss of valuable resources to an organization and may be discrimination.

Fast forward several months. "Set free" from Korea due to my age, my wife and I returned to the U.S. My job-search included one-on-one networking with about two-dozen people. I eventually found a position with Maine's Judicial Court system. Refreshingly, I felt I was judged based on my qualifications, not my age.

My partner, Marsha, having had her own trials and tribulations with ageism, had this to say: "So now we need the culture, ours and others, to catch up and stop treating us as though we suddenly have become incompetent, fragile, or incapable of doing the things we love. The world is operating on an old model of aging that hasn’t caught up to the reality for many of us. We are often discounted and not taken seriously.  We are treated at times as less capable than we are."

National retirement policies are, understandably, culturally based. But whether in Korea, or here in the U.S., we need to reexamine both our centuries-old traditions about age and the consequences those beliefs have on our citizens and our economies. In the 2015 movie, "The Intern," actor Robert De Niro, plays a 70-year old who joins a youth endowed fashion company as an intern. Tired of being bored in retirement, De Niro's character "quietly, yet commandingly, changes everyone around him in the company for the better," describes the movie website, IMDb. Those of us sporting gray hair and more mileage on our tires, are quite capable of making enterprises better and even more productive places. Smarter decision-makers are increasingly coming to this realization.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Koreans On the Camino

A Korean hiker on the Camino. Koreans
are now the ninth largest group walking the Camino.

After returning from a long day touring the scenic northwestern coast of Spain, we were walking along the winding streets of Santiago.  Dusk was settling in. Two young men with backpacks standing before a shop window caught my attention. I thought they might be Korean. They looked somewhat confused, but mostly disappointed. It was a tattoo parlor with a sign indicating that it had closed.

Speaking Korean, I introduced myself as a college English professor from Korea. A bit taken aback, the young hikers said they were from Inchon and Ulsan respectively, cities in South Korea. I mentioned I had gotten a tattoo myself just the day before. I gave directions to the parlor I had used--in fact I handed them business cards from the parlor I used that I had in my pocket and they were on their way, shaking their heads. Just another magical story along the Camino. There are many, but this one, with a bit of a Korean flavor.

Interest in the Camino de Santiago seems to be exploding. The path of St. James, for centuries a modest religious and spiritual pilgrimage, has gotten new legs, no doubt helped by social media and a number of movies that have popularized the walk. And it seems to be a favorite destination for Koreans, in particular. Koreans are now the ninth largest group walking the Camino. More Koreans walk the Camino then do Dutch, Australians or Canadians.

A Korean student taking a break from
his university commitments.

Our recent experience walking the 800-kilometers of the Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied du Port, France, to Santiago, Spain, bore this out. We met Koreans of all ages every step of the way: retired teachers, business people, students, housewives and even a young man who had just completed his army service. The “Camino culture” seems to be a good fit for activity-oriented Koreans who regularly take to the trails wherever they live in Korea.

These two friendly Koreans opened an inn and restaurant
along the Camino de Santiago. Their paella was delicious.

Koreans have many connections to the Camino de Santiago. Christianity, especially Catholicism, brings many people to this pilgrimage; churches dot every kilometer of the Way, as the Camino is called. And of course, Christianity has a broad presence in Korea, with up to 30% of Koreans identifying as either Catholic or protestant. Previous Korean pilgrims have popularized the Camino de Santiago by publishing books such as Kim Hyosun’s The Way to Santiago, and making films about their experience. A Camino of sorts has even been developed around Korea’s Cheju Island, traditionally a popular vacation destination lying just off Korea’s southern coast.

Two young Korean ladies walking the Camino. As Christians,
the Camino represents a religious pilgrimage.

It seems to me Koreans also bring their own unique culture to the Camino. Back home, Koreans famously apply their puli-puli (hurry-hurry) approach to everything they do from driving, to working, to studying. On the Camino, as they do in Korea, Koreans whizzed-by us with amazing regularity.

A young American I met along the Camino told me he believes two factors bring most pilgrims to the Camino, faith and money. And while people from around the world walk the Camino for many reasons, Koreans certainly bring faith and their credentials as members of a vibrant middle-class economy all the way from their homeland.

As my young Korean friends set off with excitement to locate my tattoo parlor, I couldn't help but think that Koreans are leaving their unique imprint along the Camino, just as they have nearly everywhere around the world.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Becoming Myself: A Korean Photographic Essay

"Home is not just the place where you happen to be born. It's the place where you become yourself."
Pico Iyer

On my 22nd birthday, my relationship with Korea began on the wings of serendipity. On that day, Sept. 2nd, 1973, I received an official acceptance letter from the U.S Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., telling me I was being assigned to serve in South Korea. 

Several months later, in Daegu, a city I had never before heard of,  I was about to complete my in-country training. As he did with each of the other fifty or so volunteers, Dr. Chae, the Korean director of our program, gave me a Korean name. That name, Song Su Nam, gave root to its own nearly novelesque imagery: an old wise man who lived on the Korean peninsula during the time of the Chinese Song dynasty. So I ask rhetorically, when exactly did my relationship with Korea really begin?

A family aboard an overnight ferry bound for Cheju Island (Spring, 1975)

Dining in a Korean Chinese restaurant (1974)

Is being home a place, a presence, or is it more like a journey? And what do we make of the places in between? 

Couple on a Daegu public bus (1974)

Korean elders. This man wears the traditional Korean horsehair hat (1974)

"Am I closer to some other power? Is some other source, some other energy, closer to me than I am to myself?"
Meister Eckhart

Downtown Daegu (1974) before the era of private cars

Downtown Daegu in 2013. In today's Korea, luxury cars hardly draw a second glance

The old and the new in the northeastern
coastal city of Kangnun

Young women in rented Hanbok, Korean traditional dress.
Here taking selfies in Seoul (2016)
Busan's Haeundae Beach during the off-season (Sept. 2014)

Living in Korea makes other parts of Asia much more accessible. By air, Japan is less than two hours away, as is Beijing. For non-Korean citizens, that city provides access to North Korea. Taiwan and Hong Kong are also popular destinations for Koreans and expats alike. Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, are following, or attempting to follow, South Korea's recent path from a developing country to a shining example of economic success. South and North Korea had nearly identical per capita GNPs as recently as 1974. Today, South Korea's GNP, per capita, is fifteen times that of North Korea.

Fashion makes a modest entrance on the streets of North Korea's capital
Pyongyang. This scene is on the main thoroughfare at the entrance of
the city's main subway station (Summer, 2014)
College students at Wonsan Agricultural University, Wonsan, DPRK (2014)

Hanbok-clad tour guide at Juche Tower in Pyongyang (2014)

Buddhist monks visiting ancient temple in Mandalay, Myanmar (2016)

The King of Chinese Chess reigns over all, Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, China

Yeungnam University is one of Korea's largest universities and boasts a magnificent, sprawling campus. I spent 5-years here teaching, and learning to no end.

The university library is a campus focal point.
The pond in the foreground is a favorite spot of mine for
watching turtles sunning themselves and for enjoying
fried squid and potatoes sold by a local woman.

Tranquil "Lovers' Lane." Here pictured during Cherry Blossom season.

A quiet moment for a gentleman who sits alone
 in the stands of the old soccer field.

With a student during a Saturday Seminar when I had the opportunity
to give a presentation on my trip to North Korea.

"If the only prayer you can ever say in your entire life is 
'thank you,' it will be enough."
Meister Eckhart

Standing in a field of cosmos (Seoul, 1975)

In a field of cosmos (Gyeong-ju, 2014)

My Korean name, Song Su Nam, 
freshly tattooed (2015)

"Oh, how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pond, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old...and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening."
from Narcissus and Goldmund, by Herman Hesse

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Healing Place: The Kim Ki-ho Clinic

Heo Jun 
Considered the Father of Korean traditional medicine,
Heo Jun is still highly regarded throughout East Asia
 China and Vietnam, to Japan.  He is famous for making treatment 
accessible and understandable to common people.

Expats coming to Korea often revel in its cultural gifts ranging from kimchi to bibimbap, from its temples to old Korean villages, from traditional garb to its rich holidays, such as Chuseok. Yet when something ails us, or we encounter back pain, we usually overlook the benefits of Korean traditional medicine. Typically, we turn to what's familiar: the western medicine experience that is too often both impersonal and over-reliant on prescription drugs. Dr. Kim Ki-ho's clinic, nestled between the Suseong Office and Manchon subway stops on the Green Line, offers a refreshing healing alternative.

Over the last several decades chiropractic has acquired legitimacy and prominence in the U.S. It's no wonder. Eighty percent of Americans are affected by lower back or neck pain. Even though patients consistently express more satisfaction with chiropractic care than other forms of treatment, these positive reports often fly beneath the radar.

I know Dr. Kim as Peter. I first discovered his huge smile and welcoming personality last spring having been referred to his practice by a colleague. I quickly benefitted from his expertise in chiropractic, acupuncture, and muscle relaxation. The latter, provided by a staff member, became the highlight of my visits. As she massaged my back, I mistook the office's treatment room for a highway stop in heaven.

Dr. Kim, who also goes by "Peter," helping a patient with
lower back pain

For more esoteric treatments, Peter is also expertly trained in body mapping, magnetic pen treatment, sound therapy, spinal adjustments and detoxification programs. Based on his training in traditional medicine, Peter believes that each patient has a unique body type. His treatments provide improved circulation, increased energy and pain cessation.

Natural herbal ingredients marked in Chinese characters

Both Peter and his capable assistant, Stella, speak English and are extremely warm and helpful. As with other medical services provided here in Korea, I was pleasantly surprised by the reasonable fees for treatment. Being an American, I am, of course, used to exorbitant prices for both medical care and prescription drugs. How refreshing it was to be seen as a whole person and, at the same time, avoid what often proves to be unnecessary medication.

Dr. Kim in his office explaining the 
meridians on a human sculpture

If wellness, pain reduction or healing are conditions you seek, I encourage you to consider Peter and his clinic. Traditional Korean medicine, like an old Korean village, can be a place of comfort and soothing hospitality. Dr. Kim's clinic is that, and much, much more.

Kim Kee Ho Traditional Korean Clinic
Daegu City, Suseong-gu, Beomeo 4 District 197-2
Tel: 053-746-0074

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Su Yeung Jang: Swimming Pool

Her diagnosis threw a wet woolen blanket over my spirit. "That will be it for running. You'll probably be able to continue with biking and walking. But, I'm afraid running is out," she said. The next time I saw my doctor she was draining two huge syringes worth of Coor's-like liquid from my right knee. This was indeed looking serious.

Yep, this was looking serious. Sucking
what looked like Coors Lite from my knee

To be sure, running has been much more than a sideline interest in my life. I started running as an 8-year old Cub Scout in New York City, winning silver and bronze medals which I still have stashed away somewhere at home. Just last November here in Korea, I ran my best 10-K in years. I envisioned myself as one of those ageless wonders, running forever, pocketing awards in my age group, until I moseyed-off into that last glorious sunset.

Coors imaging notwithstanding, I am not one to sulk in my own beer. Good thing. A 500-mike walk across northern Spain, known as the Camino de Santiago, is in my not-too-distant future. I don't have much time to turn this lemon of a predicament into a lubricating lemonade. Speaking of solutions, and back to my doctor, I had three rounds of what must be the world's most viscous solution injected into my knee. That concoction, brand named, Euflexxa, is part of my recovery strategy for being able to walk that pilgrimage from the village of St. Jean Pied De Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, 800 kilometers southwesterly to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.

But biking and walking alone won't get me there. Swimming, that other low-impact exercise, is well known as an almost magical physical therapy. I'm exhaling now. I hate swimming indoors: the roof, the vibrating sounds, the moist changing rooms, the slippery floors. Nothing could be further afield from the things that sustained me as a runner: the one-on-one communing with nature, the sound of my running shoes meeting the pavement, the ability to run anywhere in the world at almost any time.

The public Korean swimming pool I go to is about a 2-mile bike ride from our apartment. I am the only male expat sharing the lanes of this high-school affiliated facility. Of course, I had to undergo initiation rites of passage. During each of my first several visits there, the attendant came up to me and admonished me for not showering before entering the pool. (I had.) Guys in the locker room sent grimacing daggers my way for dripping water on the floor. Small prices to pay for the much needed benefits that swimming affords.

The Gyeungsan public swimming pool

The venue occupies an industrial-like site in a tired, but dignified, old part of Gyeungsan, a rapidly growing suburb of Korea's 4th largest city, Daegu. As is the Korean custom, shoes are removed upon entering. I place 1500 won (about $1.30) in a vending machine, get a ticket and exchange it for a locker key on a rubber elastic cord. Minutes later, I am in another world--a soothing aquatic space. The lanes are filled with mostly Korean ajamas (married women) and grandmothers who, by turn, either completely ignore me like some annoying floating flotsam, or smile and say,"good morning" in Korean. Essentially, it's quite like any pool anywhere in the world.

At the entrance, you place you shoes in a wallside cubbie.
Swimming, as advertised, has proven to be the best thing going for my knee. My old running tactics of setting goals and punching my stop-watch function, apply nicely in these watery lanes. The before and after ritual of biking along the working class streets of my district, provides some solace too. I realize before long, this will all be a memory--flashbacks that will carry me from town to town across the Spanish countryside as I walk the Camino.

Accessories to my aspiration:
walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Lost in Time: Returning to Places of the Heart

Only thirteen years had passed.  Returning to Korea to witness the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics was no ordinary adventure. My good friend, Soon Chul, had picked us up at the airport and the drive to his apartment was an eye-opener. Mile after mile we saw huge apartment buildings, walls of lights narrating a story of almost inexplicable change. Personal cars, subways, video billboards, countless new bridges; the unmistakable signage of a vibrant, new middle class. The trip was already spell-binding and we hadn't even arrived at his apartment.

After thoroughly enjoying the Olympic Games held at dozens of newly constructed venues, we headed south by train to visit Daegu, the city I had lived in for nearly two years as an English instructor while in the Peace Corps.  My wife, Marsha, visiting Korea for the first time, escorted me to the campus and I happily gave her a tour of the place, pointing out the buildings which housed my classes, the dignified old administration building, the campus amphitheater, and the red brick building which housed my office on its second floor.

Standing outside my office building at
Keimyung Christian College in Daegu (1974)

Students walking toward the administrative building on campus

We wound our way down a short hill and came to the school's rear gate. I knew that just a short distance from there I'd be able to show Marsha my old neighborhood including everything from the local dry cleaners and little convenience store to, more importantly, the modest rooming house (yeogwan) where I lived for over a year and a half in a small room on the 2nd floor.

The courtyard of our Korean rooming house. Sign says "Yeo-gwan," Korean for inn.

We turned the corner and I was stunned. The old neighborhood was gone! In its place were new stores, buildings and paved roads. The entire neighborhood had been razed and replaced in the intervening 13 years since I had left Korea. I began to feel dizzy and lose my bearings. I sat down to regroup and to deal with the lump of emotions that was growing in my throat. There was no going home.

Trying to return to a place once called "home" can be an
emotional roller coaster.

Apparently, this was not a rare experience in Korea. A number of Korean friends and students have told me about similar experiences when they returned to their villages or old neighborhoods; this sense of home-loss dissonance accompanied by feelings of confusion, loss and disorientation.

This highly emotional experience is timely as this week marks the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps service in South Korea. The first batch of volunteers arrived here in Korea in September of 1966. That group was quickly followed by well over two-thousand other volunteers who served in Korea from 1966 through 1981. Each group was designated in numerical order preceded by the letter "K." My group, K-30, focused on English education at the university level. My nearly fifty colleagues served in universities scattered across the country.

This week many veteran Peace Corps Volunteers will be returning to this country for the first time since their days of service here. In all likelihood it will prove to be nothing less an amazing adventure; at once deeply personal and meaningful. I suspect for most it will also prove to be a breathtaking experience as well. Returning to familiar places and old haunts can be a challenging emotional roller coaster ride. To them I say, may all your journeys conclude in the safe embrace of warm memories knowing that your efforts here were indeed well done.