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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.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Stop Trashing Korea

Haeundae Beach, courtesy of the Korea Times

A recent photo of Busan's famous Haeundae Beach awash in trash left me aghast and deeply saddened. My friends know that I love my second home, Korea. But as Korea continues to urbanize and modernize, the collective habit of impulsively leaving trash anywhere, anytime, must be addressed. In many places you simply cannot find a trash bin. Unseemly piles of litter grow on corners, next to poles, almost anywhere along Korea's streets. 

In my Korean neighborhood, trash piles up around a clothing donation box creating unsightly and unsafe conditions for children who play nearby
For reasons no one can quite agree on, many Koreans litter 
blithefully, as if someone else is going to come along and pick up after them. A number of people say it's due to the near universal absence of trash bins. Koreans, like folks in many other countries, must pay for municipal garbage bags which they use to dispose of trash at home. A popular belief is that left on their own, Koreans stuff these public trash bins with their household trash to save what amounts to a few dimes. In response, municipal officials avoid placing these bins in public places.

Wood, glass, refuse of all kinds, pile up in a children's park
in a Korean residential neighborhood

In our brave new world of high octane terrorism, the widespread availability of trash bins takes on new meaning. In Singapore, for example, the belief was that trash cans could house Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and as a result, bins were removed to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks. Singaporeans, it seems, have readily learned to carry their trash. Their streets remain remarkably clean.

So too in Japan. I have walked in cities there for hours without seeing litter, even as much as a cigarette butt, along that country's streets. And yet, there are few garbage bins. What makes Singaporeans and the Japanese so different from Koreans when it comes to keeping their public spaces free of litter?

We have seen Koreans "step up" before in support of their country. During the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, when their economy was collapsing before their eyes, Koreans dug deep to proudly save their country. As reported by the BBC, "It's an extraordinary sight: South Koreans queuing for hours to donate their best-loved treasures in a gesture of support for their beleaguered economy." Most Koreans willingly donated their precious gold jewelry in the form of wedding rings, athletic medals and trophies and even gold "luck keys," a traditional present given on the opening of a new business or a 60th birthday--all to be melted into gold bars. Amazingly, ten tons of gold was collected during only the first 2-days of the campaign. All this to pay back loans granted to Korea by the International Monetary Fund. 

Understandably, Koreans want their country to be taken as a serious international tourist destination. Seoul is one of the world's most fascinating cities. Busan, and the ancient capital city of Gyeong-ju, rival their oft visited Japanese counterparts, Osaka and Kyoto. But streets and other public places lined with trash seriously erode realization of that vision.

South Korea will soon play host to the 2018 Winter Olympics. Surely, there can be no better time, or reason, for a national initiative to make Korea litter free. If Koreans could save their country from financial ruin, they can certainly save it from ruination by trash. It's time to stop trashing Korea! To my Korean friends I say, you can do better!
SooHorang, Mascot for the 2018 Winter Olympics,
Pyeongchang, South Korea

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Tim Horton Exemption

“It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas and feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing on reason or mental health.” 

Expats and travelers fill cafes and squeeze into restaurant booths around the world. Their tales and opinions saturate the air like heavy particles hovering over the Beijing skyline. The local culture is dissected and diagnosed by these physicians certified by their wanderlust and sanctioned by the consensus of the group and the evening's rites.

Here in Korea, we might overhear talk of Koreans' driving foibles, or the nature of Korean marital dynamics where women invariably become the family CFO and take forceful and unequivocal command of all monetary matters. You can sometimes hear talk of the local disregard for minding litter, the conversation invariably drifting off to Japan by way of comparison. "You can't so much find a cigarette butt on the streets of Japan," someone will say. And yes, likely too will be the mention of the eating of dogs, an ignominious cultural artifact that is rarely practiced these days.

On the other side we have the cultural defenders, the sympathizers who, having done their homework, herd most of the naysayers back into their culturally insensitive corrals. A Peace Corps document from the early 1970s served to remind newly arrived U.S. volunteers of the foolishness of their cultural missteps: "Korea is generally judged to be a less than developed nation. This judgment is based on many factors, but mainly those dealing with economic or materialist measurements. In the field of education, and from a Korean viewpoint, it might be difficult to accept a less developed label. If you had produced movable block printing in the 12th century, a written phonetic alphabet before Columbus discovered America, and had revered education with intensity of almost religious fervor, then you might not consider yourself less developed with regard to education."

Well, touche! And we will graciously ignore your culturally insensitive comment about Columbus "discovering"America.

Sometimes, we just need to give these cultural-dialectic, this back and forth criticism and defensiveness, a free pass; a "Get out of jail free" card like in the board game, Monopoly. Instead of vitriol, allow the prevailing westerlies to do their thing and blow the smog out of Beijing naturally.

The other night I went out to dinner with three Canadian friends. The food, drink and conversation were awesome. Somehow (am I guilty?), the conversation turned to Tim Hortons, the ubiquitous coffee and pastry franchise that adorns nearly every intersection across that grand country. Canadians forever sing the praises of their beloved "Timmy's." As an American, who has driven hundreds of miles and many hours, craving coffee and something, anything, to eat, and finally seeing a Tim Horton's on the horizon, well, it was an ugly experience. I could have been had so easily. But alas, the coffee was nearly undrinkable and the donuts, literally a cardboard substitute. Here, let some closet Canadians speak for themselves:
"They just built a Tim Hortons in the Midwestern town where I live and I would rather eat a box of donuts that I found on the side of the road than ever return there."
"Tim's could sell poop on a stick and out of Canada loyalty, Canadians would still buy." 

But I smiled and kept my opinion to myself. My Canadian friends were happily adrift in their reverie for their national symbol. Going to "Timmy's" was like a religious experience for them. It was then that I realized I had needed to take out my Get out of Jail Free Card and figuratively hand it over to my Canadian friends. Why trespass on their cultural delusion? Was I going to judge Canada as being a less developed nation because of their blind faith toward Tim Horton's? Certainly not. After all, they have maple syrup and national health-care, don't they? And besides, when our most popular exports are McDonalds and Donald Trump, I have good reason to keep my tongue.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Aged-Out Korean Style

For an outsider, living here in the 1970s, it was hard to miss the pedestal they were placed upon. The elderly in Korea had earned their stripes; surviving the often brutal and dehumanizing Japanese occupation. Then came the unforgiving horror of the Korean War. If you made it to sixty you earned the privileges that society gladly bestowed on you: the respectful bows; the honorific language; for men, the long wispy beards; and for women, the convivial smoking in groups. People routinely fought to give up their seats in public buses for society's grandparents. But that was then...

…Having received the highest student evaluation scores, the three expat professors were invited to the Director's office. In a brief exchange, they received certificates of accomplishment,  a handshake from the Director and a few perfunctory words of congratulation. "I hope to see you three back here again next year," he said, "Continue with your great teaching." For one of the three professors, those comments felt a bit insensitive and incongruous. Having just earned the highest evaluation scores from students, he was being aged-out, forcibly retired. He wouldn't be teaching at his university next year. He was turning sixty-five.

In today's Korea, forced retirement based on age is systemic. As a result, just 3.7% of regular employees at medium and large companies are 55 or older. This, in a country where the life expectancy is pushing 82, one of the highest in the world.

Older Koreans on a public bus in 1974. Being "aged-out" is as common as kimchi and rice.

Being aged-out here is as common as kimchi and rice. A former colleague in the English Department, very popular with students, was recently let go because he had turned sixty-five. "It was awful," he said. "My popularity ratings were over 95% for nine years. I did extra work for the university, the school, and the department, all for 
no compensation. And, I have to leave?" he asked rhetorically.

Few folks who are aged-out take it personally. Most expats know the cultural expectations when they come to Korea and quickly learn how the guidelines are interpreted and implemented at their places of employment, usually universities. Korean natives are treated no differently, so it's not a matter of being treated inconsistently; age discrimination is institutionalized. To many though, it's more than frustrating or infuriating--it's hurting the economy and the society. In the light of day, it simply doesn't make much sense. The cultural context is unambiguous; Koreans are sent into retirement at age 50, 55, 60 or 65. In fact, new figures put the average retirement age at about 53. Younger workers are ushered into companies where they earn less, are willing to take orders, and are allegedly more flexible and more productive. But are most of these operating assumptions true?

Certainly young, fresh recruits are paid less. In South Korean firms, pay and position rise with seniority. But nearly all employers operate from the belief that productivity decreases with seniority. Over 57% of them cite “low adaptability to change” as a reason for not keeping older workers, according to the Korea Labor Institute, a government-funded think-tank. 

According to Thomas Klaassen of York University in Toronto, 
"Internationally, there is little evidence to suggest that older workers are less productive than younger ones,  Their underperformance in South Korea, if real, may be a self-fulfilling prophecy," he argues. "It could be the prospect of premature retirement that discourages older Koreans from investing in skills."

Two older gentlemen ride the subway.
Questioning their value in today's Korea?

Korean society is rapidly aging and its birthrate is in steep decline. In the late 1950s, Korean families averaged 5 children. Today, families average about 1 child. Additionally, and this should come as good news, as of 2013, the life expectancy for Koreans reached 81.9 years. A man or woman retiring at 53 still offers their country almost thirty years of productive life. But how Korea puts those still productive years to use, to fuel its once vibrant economy, is yet another question. 

Wall painting in Busan, Korea's 2nd largest city
There is much talk that new laws and guidelines will be implemented to change Korea's current "early retirement" practices. Time will tell if and when those promises result in real, systemic change. In the meantime, kicked off their pedestal, older Koreans, the very people whose blood, sweat and tears built their modern country, are sent off into the setting sun, neglected, forgotten and unrewarded.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Exotica: Why I Love Living Abroad

Living in a foreign culture can be a visceral existence to say the least. There's never a dull moment. Around every corner there's a confounding curiosity, an exchange highlighted by a smile, or perhaps an ambiguous glance.  You may need that figurative playbook, the one you keep in your back pocket or purse, to help you translate what just happened. 

My favorite scene from the movie Ghostbusters ironically may shed some insight. It's the one where Bill Murray's character, Dr. Peter Venkman, knocks on the apartment door of Sigourney Weaver, playing a woman possessed by the devil. She opens the door, seething from her dark world. He meanders in, in his capacity as world class ghostbuster. Weaver immediately starts coming on to him in her devilish stupor. Now splayed across her huge bed, he pushes her away, proclaiming, "I have a rule never to have sex with a possessed woman." Not easily deterred, Weaver continues trying to sexually overwhelm Murray. Suddenly, he sits up and says with a sly smile, "Well, maybe it's more of a guideline."

Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. Living in a foreign country requires navigating
the often unclear rules and guidelines of a culture

Seeking to understand the rules and guidelines of a place is part and parcel of living abroad. It's the caffeine in the experience. How does a place work? What are the rules and laws? What is it they might drag me away for? Just as important, are the informal guidelines of the culture--the routine expectations one needs to know to navigate day-in and day-out without leaving too large of an expat wake that unsettles the natives' boats.

Back home, the rules and guidelines are more intuitive. Nearly all the background chatter is intelligible to my senses. My knowledge of where the boundaries lie, and where the footing might be soft, saves me from cascading over a cultural cliff. Life is normative, not exotic.

One time in Korea, decades ago, I had missed all the signs, literally and figuratively. A friend and I were walking along a isolated, pebbly beach. We were lost in a world of our own. Suddenly there were screams, unrecognizable yelling, all of it in Korean. Soldiers came rushing toward us demanding that we come to a halt. We had been walking along a beach mined to protect that part of the coastline from North Korean infiltrators. We had been oblivious to all known rules and guidelines. Luckily, we lived to see another adventure.

The cultural landscape can be riddled with social "landmines"
Less dangerous, but still highly stimulating are the more mundane encounters of life in a foreign culture. What's the guideline, for example, when during a rare quiet moment on a tour of the DPRK, your North Korean tour guide who, until that moment had been distant and staunchly pro-North Korean, turns speaking in a low voice, to talk about her personal life?  Handling this awkward encounter was not mentioned in our pre-tour briefing.

Once, while walking on a busy downtown street, clothed in my youth and naivety, a new Korean buddy reached across our cultural divide to hold my hand. Chills of embarrassment ran up and down my spine. The idea of two guys holding hands in public pushed me way out of my comfort zone. The guideline here, of course, was that its quite normal for Korean friends of the same sex to hold hands.

These experiences, sometimes significant, but more typically innocuous, occur on a daily basis living in a foreign place. They become exotica, objects considered strange or interesting, because they are out of the ordinary, your ordinary. They make living overseas unrelentingly stimulating.

Having spent many years living and working in so-called foreign cultures, thoughts of returning home raise perplexing quandaries. Will life be as exciting, or even as interesting? Will I miss the familiar smells and sounds that have come to define my life in Korea? Will my life be less exotic, and does that even matter?

I don't imagine I will ever lose the wanderlust that flows through every fiber of my being. Nor, the thrill of discovering the peculiar rules and guidelines of distant places. In the spirit of ghostbusting, I trust there will always be doors too tempting not to open.