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Monday, December 28, 2015

"Korea 3.0": Korea's Economic Future is Linked to Changes in Its Education & Business Sectors

If Apple founder Steve Jobs applied for a job in today's Korean job market, would he be able to find employment? In a word, "No," according to a human resources professional in a leading Korean company. The now famous business entrepreneur was a college drop-out. He couldn't have presented credentials from one of Korea's top three universities, or any Korean college for that matter.  That fact alone would have "deep-sixed" his application to the employment wastebasket.

Would Steve Jobs be able to find employment in Korea's current
job market?
Today, Korea's economy and social structure are facing rising income inequality and high levels of relative poverty. A significant portion of the labor force occupies precarious jobs, earn relatively low wages, and remain stuck in tenuous economic straits that often derail them for their entire careers. Gazing at these troubling conditions, only 14% of Korean companies believe that their existing education system is suitable for fostering the creative talent they need to sustain their companies. According to a recent OECD report, the current Korean education system must be balanced with greater attention to fostering creativity and entrepreneurial skills-widely seen as the essential ingredients of a thriving business climate, if Korea's economy is to regain its once globally recognized vitality.

Korea's university classrooms have far too long been spaces devoid of discussion. There is however a significant bright spot in this otherwise disconcerting landscape. A teaching and learning approach, vastly different from the traditional lecture model that is so widely entrenched in Korean academia, is taking root in a handful of Korean universities. One of the leaders in this effort is KAIST University in Daejon, a school increasingly seen as perhaps the best university in Korea. The program, known as Education 3.0, is being offered in 100 ongoing classes, classes that require professors not to give lectures during their classes.

KAIST students engage in a group discussion under its Education 3.0 program. (KAIST)
Teachers must shift from their traditional role as content experts in the classroom and become more like facilitators or symphony conductors. Students read content and view relevant media prior to class meetings and use class time for discussions, problem-solving, teamwork and projects. Many classrooms have been redesigned to support such engagement with round tables and glass walls suitable for posting ideas, solving problems and encouraging teamwork. This approach to education teaches students the kinds of skills we now know are essential for building a more creative and entrepreneurial economy. This represents nothing less than a transformative shift in Korean education. 

This approach to training and learning has long since been popular in both U.S. universities and corporate environments. Witness The Evergreen State College, part of Washington State's university system. According to its website, "The Evergreen State College has earned a national reputation for innovative teaching and academic excellence." Furthermore, its highly interactive classes encourage students "to experience a better way of learning with processes that explore the many sides of a theme or topic." Corporations too have invested in training that targets the kinds of skill development that increases productivity for both current and future jobs of their employees.

The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington
Confucian philosophy based on the importance of family and social structure continues to hold sway in South Korean businesses. This means acquiescence to the boss at all costs, perhaps best (or worst) exemplified when employees stay late at work because leaving before their higher ups depart is often seen as betrayal to the boss and the organization. Employees feel the frustration of this work norm and organizations see lower productivity on their bottom line.

While Korea's tradition and culture helped power it to prosperity, sticking to old ways in both its classrooms and corporations is unlikely to help it moving forward. Korea must change and create new models in its education and business sectors. A "Korea 3.0" will not be easy, but it will be necessary if Korea is to return to its heady days of economic leadership. The DNA for Korea's future economy will rely less on which universities its youth graduate from, and more on what skills they've learned along the way.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Expats and Islanders: Adrift From the Mainland

Expats and islanders, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, have a great deal in common. Both are creatures of intention. One rarely becomes an islander, or an expat, by accident. 

The mainland. It's always there, off on the horizon. Separating itself from both the expat and the islander by space, time and distance. There's an expanse of water, often a strong current, and perhaps a gale. Sometimes, the whole of it is awash in fog.

Expats and islanders can gauge their reality by the mainland's watch: its politics; expectations; its often failing ideals.

Both live on islands of their own making. It's a foreground/background kind of thing. Expats and islanders. Each adrift from the mainland. Sometimes connected by a withered tether. Sometimes, not at all.

Islanders are a strange lot. Romantics. Artists. Iconoclasts. Naysayers. Hardier for sure, than their mainland brethren.

Expats too, strangers in a strange land, chiseled by the callused hands of culture. Adrift from the mainland. Each changing, often in different directions.

Expats and islanders. What is it that they seek? What have they found? Off in the distance.

- - -

Steve Schuit is both an islander and an expat. He's lived on Peaks Island, Maine (975 acres, 3 miles out to sea) since 1985. Recently, he's been experiencing life as an expat teaching in South Korea. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Walking Japan's Nakasendo Trail

Decisions. Sometimes they are as small as switching from one gear to another while you're riding your bike. Or deciding where to plant your feet while trying to avoid puddles on a rainy day. As a traveler though, decisions can make a world of difference. They can even change your life.

My decision to walk Japan's Nakasendo Trail opened new worlds to me. I discovered a Japan I had never experienced, one markedly different from the Japanese cities like Kyoto and Osaka I was familiar with. But the solitude of the Nakasendo, or Central Path, as it’s translated, gave me the time and space to rediscover something else, myself.

The trail beckons. Near the beginning of the trail in Magome
Ironically, I found my way to the Nakasendo during a board game night with some friends. I was randomly assigned to "that table over there" where the game Tokaido was spread across a card table. Players take turns walking their way across medieval Japan, stopping at inns, restaurants and hot springs acquiring points. The idea of an excursion across ancient Japan grew on me. I did some research, discovering there were actually a number of these trails crisscrossing Japan.

I settled on Oku Japan, a company that specializes in self-guided tours. After designing a hiking itinerary matching my interests, I left Korea for my 8-day hiking adventure in Japan.

The Nakasendo Trail weaves its way from southwestern Honshu
northeasterly to Tokyo

Imagine a full day of hiking along quiet, verdant forest trails. You arrive at your Japanese inn sometime in late afternoon. Escorted to your room, you are given a robe and directions to the inn's hot tub. The hot water, piped in from a local hot spring, inevitably melts away your cares and any soreness from the day's hike. "This is the life," you tell yourself, knowing full well that a heavenly Japanese dinner and comfortable night on the tatami floor still await you.

For fans of Japanese food, the dishes prepared with pride in the inns along the Nakasendo are mesmerizing to the palate. I am reminded of the lyrics from the Eurythmics’s hit, "Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree? I travel the world and the seven seas. Everybody's looking for something." Well, this was exactly what I was looking for.

As promised by Oku Japan, a package was awaiting me at the front desk when I checked into my Kyoto hotel. It contained everything I needed for the walk: maps, train tickets and information guides. After leisurely exploring Kyoto for two days, I took my first train to Nakatsugawa, then a bus to Magome, the final stop on the line. The setting greeted me like an old friend. I had seen this medieval Japanese street-scene motif in many photos. A wide-stoned path that meandered gently up hill welcomed me. I abided letting myself slip into the moist air, the low clouds and the mysteriousness of the Nakasendo Trail.

Stone path and view of valley below

July, they tell me, is a quiet time on the trail. It’s often rainy and children are still in school. That explains why I had the trail largely to myself. Other than meeting a father and son from Seattle on that first rainy day, the trail was my own. Well, that is, if you don’t count the brown bears and monkeys that inhabit the mountains along the trails. I didn’t see either species, although bear bells dotted the trail. Not one for surprise bear encounters, I rang each bell vigorously, then loudly sang favorite tunes from elementary school as I walked along the trail.

Bear bells like this one were along much of the trail

That first day’s final destination was the magical town of Tsumago. Its curved main street, lined on both sides by dark 2-story wooden buildings, was quiet and seductive. I found my inn at the far end and I was the only guest.

My host at Matsushiroya Minshuku in Tsumago

The trails provide contemplative space. Each hill, each bend reveals a secret offering, an inscribed stone, a view, a shrine, a story from its past. They complimented the almost fictional characters I met at night at the inns. The staff, inn keepers, and servers, most of whom were dressed in traditional Japanese attire, were like characters in a play I was part of.  I needed only to let go and be carried away by the happenings as they unfolded.

Mr. Goto, one of the unique people I met along the way

Each day’s destination Nagiso & Nojiri, Yabuhara, Narai, Hirasawa, Karuizawa and Yokokawa, in turn, revealed its own unique personality.  I could almost sense the excitement of the entertainers and merchants who once walked the trail. The low clouds that clung to the mountains added a sense of mystery, reminiscent, no doubt, of the dangers that confronted those early travelers from the Japanese royal class as they walked the trail town to town during the 16th century hoping to avoid encounters with bandits and thieves.

Iseya Inn in Narai

My encounters along the Nakasendo were more magical. Walking the Nakasendo-a good decision indeed!

Isolated stretch along the Nakasendo

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Old Korean Inn

Two zany ladies in their mid-thirties ran the place, an otherwise no-frills inn with five or six rooms
Nearly always smiling, the ladies of
my Korean inn
and an austere garden. Their antics created an oasis for me over the course of a year, down an otherwise unremarkable street about three blocks from my university.

I was greeted with a knock on my door early each morning. Ms. Han or Ms. Bae would bring my breakfast on a tray-usually rice in a metal bowl, soup, fish and several side dishes of vegetables or black beans along with some barley tea. Before I left for the day, they always would ask if I would be home for supper. 

My days there were strands of solace in place and time.  The world inside the heavy metal gate was warm and comforting. On cold days the heated floors drew me in like a toasty pouch. I washed at the outside faucet. Hot water was only a dream.

As with any stage, there was a cast of unusual characters. The cute little girl who brightened my day like a wild spring flower. Friends of Ms. Bae or Ms. Han who came to share gossip and play Korean card games. There were, of course, other guests too, though they brought an itinerant sense to the place, coming and going, fleeting glimpses of life at the inn.

The sign says "yo-gwan," Korean for inn. I washed
here, along with other guests.
In those days inns were almost everywhere in Korea. Their rooms were on one or two floors in layer cake fashion, or if older style, off wooden verandas that surrounded quiet gardens with tiny ponds. Shoes outside a door would trip your imagination about the guests inside and their stories.

Like the old Korean coffee shops and public baths, these inns have all but disappeared. They were the anchors of Korean neighborhoods, places of tradition and social sanctity. The winds of change have swept through Korean society leaving the likes of motels and Starbucks in their place.  My old inn? The inn, the street, the entire neighborhood, were razed by bulldozers years ago. Now only memories remain, entrusted to me and perhaps to a little girl with a smile.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Back in The Saddle Again

Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed
Back in the saddle again

Painting by Jack Sorenson

Another precious summer gives way to the inevitable sirens of autumn. Korea's hottest and most humid days are behind us now. With a latitude similar to that from Boston to Washington, D.C. in the U.S., Korea's days now grow shorter and cooler.

For me, this means returning to Korea and "saddling up" once again to teach some of Korea's aspiring college students. Learning English, however, isn't the only thing on their plates. They face the challenges of high unemployment (over 30%) when they graduate, unrelenting social pressures to get one of the relatively few high status positions in one of the country's conglomerates, and cultural problems that include disconcertingly high per capita alcohol consumption and off-the-chart suicide rates.

Riding' the range once more
Totin' my old 44
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right
Back in the saddle again

As usual, the larger context features the ongoing conflict between North and South Korea. This summer's version resembles the battle of the bands with each side literally turning up the volume of propaganda they blast across the DMZ via massive speakers. 

Powerful South Korean speaker systems
broadcast propaganda up to 12 miles, annoying the heck
out of North Korean officials
The North somehow felt it necessary to add a few more land mines to what is already the world's deadliest corridor--land mines which tore the legs off several South Korean soldiers. Somehow this mess apparently translated to a willingness on both sides to discuss cross-border family reunions--a process which was discontinued several years ago. We'll see.

Friends and family back home often see my return to Korea as something ominous given the aforementioned ongoing conflict between North and South Korea. In turn, I wonder how they neglect to see our own country's gun violence as even more disturbing than the antics between the Koreas.

Always entertaining is the banter on social media here amongst members of Korea's English teaching community. Some complain that they are treated like second-class citizens by their Korean administrators. Others denigrade the Korean education system and swear this will be the last semester they teach here. The silent majority of expats seems to appreciate their role and quietly go on with their mission of making a difference in the lives of their students. Having lived here a lifetime ago, I tend to find the vitriol both familiar and mildly annoying. I think I'll don my cowboy hat, hop back in the saddle, and simply go my way into the Korean sunset.
Rockin' to and fro
Back in the saddle again
I go my way

*Back in the Saddle Again, lyrics by Gene Autry

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Cardinal Rule

  • This is not a blog post about bagels, although it could be. And it's beside the fact that you cannot find an authentic bagel in South Korea. But, truth be told, I am a sucker for a good bagel.

    Real bagels

    Recently, an article about bagels caught my eye. The author was searching for the best bagel in San Francisco. Suddenly, he took a literary side trip and claimed that the best bagels anywhere could be found in New York City and Montreal. Having eaten remarkable bagels in both those cities, I supposed that case could be made. Then came his extraordinary proclamation, "If there is one golden rule for good bagels," he said, "It is this: A good bagel shall not require toasting. All else follows."

    That may ignite an interesting debate and perhaps it should. But as I said, this post is not about bagels. It is (as the title suggests) about rules. Not just any rules, but Cardinal rules. A Cardinal rule, according to the Urban Dictionary, "is a substantial rule that is in place in a situation or organization. And it must not be broken anytime." OK, that's pretty darn clear.

    Now one situation that every expat here in Korea has observed is Koreans wearing attire with English inscriptions. Much has been said about this phenomenon. Certainly, much has been seen. But one component has heretofore been lacking. That is, a relevant Cardinal rule to accompany this dynamic. For nearly every time that I have asked one of my students or a passerby on the street about the meaning of the English inscription on their gear, the response has almost always been the same, "I have no idea what it means. I just like the style."

    OK, time for the minting of the applicable Cardinal rule: "No person anywhere should ever wear an article of clothing without knowing the meaning of the inscription that may be contained therein." This could easily be hazardous to your halo, or at least to your ego.

    Sometimes the infractions are harmless enough.

  • Other times however, people may be pushing the boundary.

    Once, a coed in one of my classes was wearing a very attractive sweater. I walked over to observe how she was doing during an in-class assignment. Looking at what she was writing from the row behind, I noticed that the words "Fuck Me" were woven into the top part of her shoulders. Whoa, I thought. "Excuse me, do you know what's written on your shoulders?" I asked. "No professor," she answered coyly. "What's written on that sweater is not appropriate. Please do not wear it again to my class."

    Sometimes the inscriptions are a stretch. Is she talking figuratively? Or, is this about pizza?

    Can you repeat that?

    OK, sometimes I must admit, these musings might make sense.

    Well, I am sorry to hear this.

    Yes, you are!

    Ah students, and Korean friends, my heed I know you will not take. "Style" points in Korea, trump any advice I may offer. I understand full well. Nonetheless, I repeat my Cardinal rule: "No person anywhere should ever wear an article of clothing without knowing the meaning of the inscription that may be contained therein." The risk you take is yours alone.

    I am reminded of that great scene from the movie classic, "Ghostbusters." Sigourney Weaver, possessed by the devil, is coming on to ghostbuster, Bill Murray. He halfheartedly pushes her away. "I have a rule," he says, "never to get involved with possessed people." She ignores Murray and continues her aggressive pursuit. Murray reconsiders. "Well, maybe it's more of a guideline than a rule." Rules vs. guidelines, never to be confused again.

    Now for the rest of you, guidelines aside, what Cardinal rules help you meander your way through your life? What's a Cardinal rule you might offer the masses? Bill Murray is curious. So are we. Bagel anyone?

  • Friday, June 19, 2015


    Expats know this where language and culture are often confounding. The days can be wonderful, filled with rich memories in the making. But the future always looms.

    Expats here can be found plying social media with complaints and criticism born largely, I think, from the frustration of living and working in Korea. English teachers and professors, easily the largest expat contingent, sometimes chide their schools online for their hiring practices and overall treatment of foreign teachers. "It's not just Korea," a friend assured me. "Expats around the world do the same thing. It's a common phenomenon."

    I found myself growing annoyed with what seemed to me to be a kind of xenophobia in reverse; a group of expats who more than occasionally give voice to what is ailing Korea, what is broken, dysfunctional, and needs to change. Their lives, they believe, would be easier, if only they were treated more fairly, more like what constitutes propriety in their home countries.

    "Living abroad requires certain  measures of self-reliance
    and strength of character"

    In fact, satisfaction at work is key to a positive expat experience. English teachers spend many hours in the classroom or in other locations in their respective schools. If Korean schools, whether hagwons (language institutes), public schools, private schools or universities, were inclined to better understand and respond to the needs of expat teachers, many expat concerns and grievances could be ameliorated. Problems both in and out of the workplace can distract expat teachers, adversely effecting their productivity, and contributing to shorter stays in Korea.

    The reality of course, is that most of us are not citizens here. We are instead simply guests, working stiffs, doing the job, contract by contract, at the discretion of our employers and on the receiving end of government policies here. We are not Koreans and we are treated differently. And we are, almost always, treated "less than" native Koreans.

    Living abroad requires certain measures of self-reliance and strength of character. Each expat location has its own unique idiosyncracies. Here in Korea, while certainly less of an issue than 40 years ago, being stared at is still commonplace. Korea is also infamous for its crazy drivers who ignore driving laws and seem to abhor the very idea of pedestrians.

    Denmark, currently home to more than 41,500 expats, regularly undertakes research on the unique experience of expats in that country. The country is genuinely concerned with the expat experience. Denmark, it seems, wants to leverage the added value that expats bring to their economy.  In sponsoring "The Expat Study," ongoing research authorized by the Danish government, it recognizes that "companies, research institutions, and nations must search for competence and knowledge world-wide if they are to gain or maintain a competitive advantage." The research findings include what expats there generally find positive and negative. Expats, for example, often find Danes "closed-off and difficult to form friendships with." On the other hand, they find the good work-life balance in Denmark to be quite positive. Positive and negative experiences, it appears, are inevitable.

    For most expats there is that unavoidable "looming future." After living in China for many years and marrying a Chinese woman, Mark Kitto, then 46, one of the best-known foreign entrepreneurs in China at the time and fluent in Chinese, wrote about his expat experience in an essay, "You'll Never Be Chinese."  As an expat, he fell out of love with China as his fears about the increasing pollution in northern China, water shortages and issues around food safety brought his disenchantment to a head. Moreover, as his young children got older, he wanted to give them what he felt was "a decent education."

    Expats, I think, can sometimes become afflicted with a self-inflated superiority. We can lose our humility and open-mindedness. I know this well and personally.  Having lived here in Korea from 1973-1975, I experienced my share of challenges and frustrations. In that era before the internet and computers, getting a letter home to family and hearing back took, at best, 4-6 weeks. Sitting on a western style toilet was a dream. Just eating a hamburger or pizza, our go-to fast foods, was not possible, unless you had a close buddy on one of the military bases. There were nightly curfews that required you to be off the streets by 9:30PM. In an environment with few westerners, young children regularly ridiculed my beard calling me "monkey." I left Korea in 1975 worn out, frustrated and bitter, swearing I would never return.

    Today, Korea has an expat community of more than 1.5 million. We are clearly helping Korea satisfy their need for specialized workers, most usually in the area of English education, a critical competency for Korea's continuing leadership in the global marketplace. Like Denmark, there is an unmistakeable opportunity for Korea to better understand and respond to the needs of its expat community. But like it or not, we remain ambassadors from our home countries. Our behavior, positive or negative, reflects on the expat community overall. While there is certainly no shortage of things to complain about, at the end of the day, it is worth recalling, most of us are here as guests. "For, after all, put it as we may to ourselves," author Rebecca Harding Davis offered, "we are all of us from birth to death guests at a table which we did not spread."

    Thursday, May 7, 2015

    My Lunch With Ms. Jung

    From a short distance the stand of trees all look similar. The wind stirs and the young spring leaves all rustle in unison. It seems like one voice. But get closer. You can make out a lilac tree hidden from view. It has those lovely purple flowers. And that unique scent finds its way to you. It causes you to say, "My goodness, you are lovely aren't you?"

    Somehow Jung Su Min's* presence in the Daegu area found its way to me. She had briefly been a student at an area English academy. Then, another area professor told me about her and he helped me track her down.

    Su Min, 30, recently escaped from North Korea. She told no one about her plans. She left a note for her mother. Her father, working for an administrative branch of the DRPK army, died shortly after her departure. I had many questions, but I knew I had to put them aside for the moment.

    She agreed to meet me for lunch. Students were coming and going, strutting their latest styles, distracted by their smart phones. I did notice one woman sitting alone off to the side on a bench under some trees. She was wearing a long billowy white dress and red heels looking a bit like she stepped out of the 1980s. In a sense, she had.

    We walked together through a forested area near her campus. We went to a restaurant off the beaten path, one where we could talk without the jarring din of Korean music.

    Her face held many stories. It spoke too, of beautiful simplicity. Her make-up was minimal. Her face was round, like many of the faces I saw during my visit to North Korea last summer. As the side dishes were brought to us, she moved the small bowls and plates around the table. Her hands looked strong, her fingers plain and rough, utilitarian, almost ignored--far different from the manicured, attention-seeking fingers of most female Korean students.

    Cosmopolitan women of Pyongyang

    Su Min, in her steady but basic English, told me that the route of her escape took her through China, Laos, and then, into Thailand. There she found access to South Korea. I imagined that she had gone through a lengthy screening and interrogation process here, but she said it only consisted of completing forms for several hours. Where do you live I asked? How do you survive financially? What do you do? Questions asked in rapid succession.

    Thailand is generally the next-to-last destination of North Koreans escaping through China. Many Koreans surrender themselves to the Thai police soon after they across the border. Over the past ten years the number of North Korean defectors coming to South Korea has averaged 2,170 a year, 70% of them women.

    I quickly realized I wasn't "just" sitting with a North Korean defector. I was having lunch with a woman of clarity, of strong convictions. She is a woman fully 10 years older than most of my students. Unlike those students, she is not distracted by the lure of commercials, the incessant marketing and the expensive brands that intoxicate most young Koreans. She was here to learn, to gain knowledge, fully appreciative of her opportunities, of her new found freedom.

    Woman walking with friend in Pyongyang

    Su Min lives alone, she told me. She earns her income. The South Korean government pays her to speak, to tell her story at gatherings of soldiers and at prisons. While the government has helped her find her way to her university, she lacks many of the resources her South Korean counterparts typically use to jumpstart their careers.

    South Koreans traditionally rely on three sets of "connections" to get access to jobs and secure their careers: Hyak yun (학연), school contacts, Jee yun (지연), social and geographical contacts, and Hyul yun (혈연), family and generational contacts. Su Min, having left her family in North Korea, by definition, starts at a severe disadvantage in terms of all three types of connections. So, she wants to focus on her studies at the university and to gain as much knowledge as possible as she begins her career and life journey in South Korea.

    She is able to be in occasional touch with her mother; a complicated process involving Chinese cell phone connections. Surprisingly, she is able to provide her mother with financial support. She saves up money she earns and though secretive and expensive connections through China, her cash finds its way to her mom. The process, however, is very expensive. She pays a 30% fee for each transaction.

    I asked Su Min about her future plans. I expected to hear some vague ideas about "fitting in" and quietly assimilating into society here in South Korea. But Su Min looked at me confidently and told me she has both 5 and 10 year plans. "I want to be a politician here in South Korea," she told me proudly. I was impressed with her assertiveness, but surely, her courage and mettle is what helped her to find her way safely out of North Korea, across China and ultimately, to the seat across the table from me here in South Korea.

    I had one last question, one that has gnawed at me through the many books and articles I have read about North Korea. It had puzzled me during my conversations with both North Koreans and the people who do business there. I asked Su Min if most North Koreans know the basic truth, that their leaders are fabricating reality, and that there is a wider world of freedom existing just past their border. "Yes, they know," she said. "But it's too dangerous to speak about it."

    As we walked back to her campus it became clear to me just how special this young woman was. There are indeed many trees in the forest all rustling in unison. But this young lady, I thought, answers to a breeze all her own. This one, I said to myself, is going to make history. 

    Author's note: *Jung Su Min is not her real name. Her name was changed to protect her privacy. Other aspects of her story, for example her major and her university, have been omitted to help preserve her anonymity.

    Monday, April 13, 2015

    The Road Home: Daegu's Enchanting Kim Kwang-seok Walking Street

    Like a musical rose poking its head up through the cement caverns of the city, Daegu's Kim Kwang-seok Road neighborhood intoxicates and surprises its guests. Sprouting between the Kyeungbuk University Hospital and Daegu Bank subway stops on the Green Line, the area is named in memory of one of Korea's most famous musicians, folk-singer, Kim Kwang-seok, a native of Daegu, whose songs are still highly popular with Koreans years after his tragic passing in 1996.

    A visitor poses next to a likeness of musician and song writer
    Kim Kwang-seok 

    The area, approximately 25 or so square blocks, is undergoing an artistic and culinary renaissance in one of Daegu's older neighbor-hoods. Hip coffee shops, restaurants, art studios and other enterprises dot the landscape. Wanderers are rewarded at every turn along quaint side streets by sights, sounds and the smell of fresh food. The road ("kil" in Korean) is nestled between the river and an old Korean market and residential area. They melt seamlessly together to create a walking experience highly pleasing to the senses.

    Having fun: interactive "stations" dot the neighborhood

    We stumbled upon the neighborhood when friends told us about their new take-out joint, Chiliboy, located along a side street. Their bright red and white stall serves up great sandwiches and chili. We've been going back to the area on a regular basis for art shows and to discover things we may have missed on previous visits.

    Pleasant surprises along the walking street

    Entrances to the neighborhood use art to remind you of its namesake, Kim Kwang-seok (1964-96), whose guitar and harmonica playing found its way into the hearts of Koreans nationwide. Traversing along the area's main walking street you encounter a number of interactive exhibits that engage and entertain. At the center is a pleasant sun-filled amphitheater for performers. During our visits the sounds of guitar playing and singing could be heard drifting over the walls, filling nearby alleys and sitting areas.

    Musician performing at the neighborhood's amphitheater

    The smiles of the business vendors and the cheerful displays of art, ceramics and trinkets make strolling there a joyful experience. It's somewhat like a playful oasis in the midst of Daegu's more typical tenor of hustle and bustle.

    Kim Kwang-seok Road is a special destination, a pleasant and celebratory reminder of the man and his music.

    In memory of the man and his music

    Getting there:

    The Kim Kwang-seok Road neighborhood is located between the Kyungbook National University
    Hospital and Daegu Bank subway stops on the Green Line and is a short walk from either.

    Friday, April 3, 2015

    After The Cherry Blossoms

    As small as it may be (it's the size of Indiana), Korea is a land filled with countless contradictions. There's a high tech edge to the place, with its nearly universal wireless access on the one hand, and its inability to provide simple, basic safety for the hundreds of student victims of the Sewol Ferry Disaster, on the other. There's the remarkable and clearly delineated respect shown to elders, teachers and parents here, and then, there's the unbelievable anarchy and terror of its roads, where caution and sensibility are thrown to the wind.
    Captivating cherry blossoms as far as the eye can see
    Korea is also the setting for an extravaganza each spring when cherry blossoms do their magical, short lived dance.  Shades of pinks, drifting to near whites, mesmerize nearly all citizens here. I think everyone can find agreement on this topic; there is nothing quite as beguiling as cherry blossoms in spring. Yet their petals are soon set free, creating a glorious but fragile and fleeting light-colored carpet.

    And then, the remains of the day reveal yet another Korean contradiction. In nearly every nook and cranny: piles of trash. Walking around an otherwise scenic lake? Empty coffee cups on benches. Turning a corner in a pleasant residential neighborhood? Small mountains of trash adorn every intersection. Watching dozens of kids playing in a park? Shards of broken glass and spent cups from last night's revelers abound. Sadly, and in spite of every modern technology tool, Korea's streets are awash in trash.

    Cherry blossom petals surround a pile of trash
    What pray tell is behind this offensive cultural phenomenon? Like the lag time between its technology prowess and its safety awareness, some might say that this highly developed country still hasn't given birth to a sense of environmental stewardship. Others would say that Korea infamously spoils its children, especially its sons, who have come to expect that their mothers will do everything for them. Got trash? Well then, just leave it there, someone else will come and clean up after you. Some observe, quite accurately, that there are few garbage containers to be found anywhere in this country. Communities have tried, Koreans claim, to place garbage receptacles in public places, but people overwhelm them with their own household trash as they seek to save money they would have to spend on their own surcharged garbage bags.

    Discouraging, if not dangerous, pile of trash adjacent to children's park
    As spring's cherished cherry blossoms come, and then, ever-too-quickly depart, we are left, sadly, with another, less glorious aspect of this country, its year-round, ubiquitous trash "bouquet." Korea, I think it's time to clean up your act.