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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

K-Pop


Our bus from Seoul had emptied out at the East Daegu Station. The driver was taking a break somewhere outside in the grey chill. I noticed that the only other person on the bus was sitting directly in front of me--on the other side of the tall seatback. I struck up a conversation with Ms. Yoon, a recent college graduate. She was petite, all of perhaps 22 or 23. Her intermittent fingering of her cell phone didn't keep her from being quite friendly.
We were soon on our way again. The scenery between Daegu and the somewhat more provincial Gyeongsan was flowing alongside our conversation. She was a newly minted elementary school English teacher about to begin her teaching career. She was speaking nearly flawless, accent-free English.
She wasn't much older then my students at Yeungnam University are likely to be. I asked her what she and her friends were talking about these days--what mattered to them. She quickly responded, "K-pop"* (Gayo in Korean) saying that it was a new music genre that was very popular not only in Korea but abroad as well--Korean pop music. Then she added that the issues of the Korean economy and finding jobs were also on their minds. I asked Ms.Yoon if North Korea was worrying her. She smiled and said "No, not really."
Our bus arrived in Gyeongsan and we both waited outside for our rides. She had a small colorful suitcase and told me that she was just returning from a weeklong education seminar in Thailand.
Byeong, my host, greeted me warmly. I introduced him to Ms.Yoon and in departing, I wished her the best. My bags filled the trunk and back seat of his car. We spoke politely as he drove me to my apartment--my new home in Korea. We reflected on the Korean economy of his teenage years--when I was last teaching in Korea. It was as recent as the mid 1970's when both Koreas, north and south, had almost identical per capita annual incomes. Today, North Korea struggles with massive food shortages and an economy that has changed little since 1975. South Korea is now one of the world's leading economic powers and top exporters. I wonder if K-pop has found its way into the dark citadel that is North Korea.**

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Prologue



Our plane set down into a wintry Seoul that presented a cold, barren and dusty landscape. A military veil enshrouded everything. The motif was camouflage green and brown adorned by a plethora of vigilant soldiers and drizzled on all the vehicles.

In an exhausted state we were whisked away by chartered bus and arrived five hours later in Daegu, Korea's fourth largest city. We found ourselves alighting in front of a isolated hotel nestled on a sparsely forested hillside just above a lake. It was to be our home, our school, our cocoon for several weeks as our Korean assimilation process began. We were fifty young volunteers that November of 1973 each trying to find our personal equilibrium within this most unfamiliar, yet intriguing, place.

A week later the faculty gave us an early cross-cultural assignment. In small groups we were to take our first public bus ride into Daegu, paying careful attention to route numbers and practicing our rudimentary Korean.

As I boarded the bus and caught the incredulous stares of the locals, an intense aroma struck me with an almost suffocating effect. I had no frame of reference for recognizing it. It draped itself over me in layers at once garlicky, salty, peppery. Yikes! If this is how Korean buses smelled, I thought, I was not going to make it here. Indeed, this was the texture of our Korean bus rides: wide-eyed denizens wondering what foreigners were doing there mixed with the odor of kimchee oozing its way in and out of the pores of Korean life.

A week later I was riding the same bus. Amazingly, the smell had disappeared. The first phase of my assimilation had been completed. I now smelled like a Korean.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bookends On a Lifetime


As a college senior I looked askance at working 9-5. Knowing I had a lifetime awaiting me to put in long hours and build a career, I applied to the Peace Corps before my graduation from Boston University. On my 22nd birthday I received a letter special delivery from Washington, DC informing me that I was heading to South Korea as a university instructor of English.

Korea, with its rich 5,000 year-history, was a struggling country in 1973. The largely deforested country was still feeling the ravages of the Korean War. There was no potable water to be found. Rice was rationed by national policy. These challenges notwithstanding, the Korean people opened their homes and hearts to the American volunteers. 

Even as a 22 year-old I was afforded a great deal of respect because of the Confucian Ethic which stipulates that all Koreans must demonstrate honor for the Emperor, the father and the teacher--in this case, a young university instructor of English. From Buddhist temples, to kimchee, to mornings of enchanting calm--true to the country’s nickname “Land of the Morning Calm,” living in Korea was an amazing experience. Reciprocating that respect, I tried to help Korean students with their English and provide the linguistic tools to prepare young Koreans to become citizens for the global economic giant their country was soon to become.

My experience in Korea left me with an insatiable appetite for traveling and exploration. My career as a consultant, human resource manager and educator has taken me to over 50 countries. Turning 60 rekindled my thirst for an adventure. Now, more than three decades and a lifetime later, I am returning to Korea; a matching bookend to a magical journey taken decades ago.