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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Korea In the Side-View Mirror: Reflections of a Former Peace Corps Volunteer

It was pure serendipity. The acceptance letter from Washington arrived September 2nd 1973, smack on my birthday. Wherever I was assigned, I thought, I was surely meant to go. Less than 3-months later, I found myself on a very cold hillside, overlooking a lake on the outskirts of Daegu, South Korea's 3rd largest city. Fifty of us, naive and hopeful Peace Corps Volunteers, from nearly every corner of the U.S., were about to embark on a transformative 90-day training experience that included Korean language training, cross-cultural understanding, and teaching English as a second language.

With Korean friends at a local park, Spring 1975

After our swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, I was assigned to teach English at Keimyung College in Daegu. Korea in those days was a developing country; there was virtually no middle class, few private cars, our classrooms were either freezing cold or sweltering, and always poorly lit. But Korean students then were all on a mission--working hard to succeed in school and to learn English to help propel their country forward. Little did they know they were indeed participating in a historic economic miracle.

Life as a Peace Corps volunteer then was challenging. There were few expats, fewer phones, and if you sent a letter home, you'd be lucky to hear back in 4-6 weeks, if at all. Communication was face to face. You would make arrangements days in advance to meet at a specific time and place, write it down and keep your fingers crossed. Students clamored for time with you to practice their English and to find out as much as possible about the world outside Korea. It was, as the Peace Corps ad says, "The toughest job you will ever love."

Several of my students at Keimyung College in Daegu in 1974

When I left Korea in the mid-seventies I was certain I would never see it again. As the years passed, the recollections of my life in Korea crystallized into increasingly romanticized memories. They became nearer and dearer to me in my life's side-view mirror.
Caution: Memories Are Closer and More Powerful Than They Appear
I married, raised a family and enjoyed a career in human resource management, banking, teaching and consulting--all of which allowed me to travel internationally and to keep the wanderlust, first acquired during my Peace Corps days, well nourished. Much to my surprise, business took me back to Korea, first for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and then on several trips to lead management seminars for Korean managers. Korea just kept calling me. Eventually, I answered.

Fast forward to 2011. Korea, now the 15th strongest economy in the world, welcomed me back as a professor of English. I have returned to the same metropolitan area I once lived in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am now on the faculty of Yeungnam University, a vibrant, international campus with 27,000 students.

Current students enjoying a lighter moment before
the start of class. Yeungnam University, Fall 2014.

My Korean students today are the sons and daughters of those very spirited students I taught years ago. My two stints in Korea have become bookends on my life. Who says you can't go home again?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Korea's Comfort Women: The Remorseless Tragedy

It's a tragedy that asks little of us. Instead, many look away, ignore, or avoid the matter altogether.  It is easy to claim that nearly all the victims and perpetrators have long since passed. True enough. But the indignities are timeless; they continue today. They are monumentally exacerbated by Japan's unwillingness to apologize for its actions. The Japanese occupying force not only pillaged the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945, but the Japanese Imperial Army raped tens of thousands of women, and did so repeatedly, during an extended period that included the years of World War II.

For those of us not clear about that record, a new book Daughters of the Dragon: A Comfort Woman's Story, by William Andrews, reveals the story, snaring the reader into its web. This compelling tale will not allow you to look away or ignore the stark reality experienced by its main characters, two sisters living in the north of Korea who, like many others, were given written orders to leave home and support the Japanese war effort by working in a boot factory.

The historical account should be required reading for every Korean, friend of Korea, and anyone concerned with the abuse and torture of women anywhere. The story of the Daughters of the Dragon is riveting and searing and at times, unrelenting. But being drawn out of my comfort zone, I think, was part of my due diligence to more fully appreciate this important piece of history.

This bitter history continues today. The few surviving comfort women continue their weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. And on the recent 96th anniversary of the Korean uprising against the Japanese occupation here, South Korea's president Park Geun-hye speaking before a national television audience "urged Japan on Sunday to have the 'courage and honesty' to admit to its historical wrongdoings against Koreans and other Asians, including its enslavement of Korean women in military brothels during World War II."

The president noted that “This year alone, two of the old women passed away with no healing of their sufferings" and "that the average age of the remaining 50 known South Korean comfort women was close to 90. Time is running out to restore dignity to their lives.”

In the Q & A section at the end of the book, Andrews shares that the book was influenced by his daughter who is from South Korea. He says (modestly) that he "learned about the country and thought it was fascinating." That is an understatement. The story of Anna, as revealed through the life of her maternal grandmother, Hong Ja-hee, is an intense and unrelenting emotional journey down Korea's roads and inside its relationships. It reveals a raw and real Korea like few other western books have done.

I am reminded of the powerful Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden, intriguingly also a book seen from a woman's perspective, likewise written by a man. Like Memoirs, Daughters of the Dragon is a mesmerizing story, one difficult to face, yet nearly impossible to put down. 

Note: The author of Daughters of the Dragon, William Andrews, is currently seeking a translator and Korean publisher for a Korean language edition.