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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.