Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Korean Contours: Circling Back, Shaping The Future

"Believe in the holy contour of life."
Jack Kerouac 

The contours of Korea have carried me across and beyond four decades. Like the twin loops of a figure eight, I have twice come full circle in Korea. At the time of my arrival in November of 1973, Gerald Ford was being voted in by the U.S. Senate to replace Richard Nixon. That month the headlines were featuring the infamous Watergate Scandal. As I prepared to depart Korea in 2017 completing another cycle there, Korea was reeling from its own presidential scandal.

The Korea of 1973 was a developing country, with a per capita income equal to that of the country that shares its peninsula, North Korea. Today, Korea's economy is the 13th strongest in the world, ranked between Australia and Spain, and ahead of The Netherlands (17), Turkey (18), and Saudi Arabia (19). As an observer, it is hard to believe how significantly this country has transformed itself in such a relatively short period of time.

I have attempted to capture reflections of these changes in both words and pictures in my more than ninety posts here on the Korean Bookends blog. But headlines and statistics aside, the contours of Korea will remain with me forever. 

An old woman leans on a piece of styrofoam to make
her way in downtown Daegu 

A Seoul sculpture reflects the youthful "hurry-hurry" culture of modern Korea

Red peppers drying in the September sun

Hand-made steamed buns offered up in an old shop in Seoul

The shapes of things to come: a new mall in southeastern Seoul

Daegu East Station makes room for the city's newest mall
New arts complex in Seoul
"I'm Korean:" Young Seoul artist leaves his imprint
Wooden stairs at Yeungnam University in Gyeongsan

Recently, I've made plans to return to Korea to complete yet another circle. I will be joining a group of former volunteers 
-teachers and health professionals-folks, who decades ago came to work with, and assist, Korean citizens. In rediscovering the past, we often sharpen our sense of the present and the future. In doing so, writer Jack Kerouac noted, perhaps we can find the holy contours of life.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Long Road Back to Korea

It's gotten to the point where there are way too many "formers" on my Facebook bio: former associate professor, former consultant, former facilitator at a conflict-resolution camp. One "former," in that long parade, was an early one, my stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea.

Recently, I was reminiscing about the feelings I had more than four decades ago as I was preparing to depart the U.S. and head to Korea for the very first time. I didn't have much to go on. I had a sense it was far away from everything I knew growing up in the suburbs of New York City. But I knew nothing about the food, the culture, its history, only a few general things about a war we had fought there in the early 1950s.

Once again, I'm getting ready to go to Korea. In a few months I hope to return and I'm awash in feelings of excitement and reminiscence. This time, I have a million hooks to hang my emotions onto. I can picture the many places I yearn to return to in Seoul, Daegu and Gyeungsan, the latter two, locations where I taught English to Korean college students. I recall the smells that wafted along side alleys, redolent in garlic, kimchi and silkworms steaming in the pots of street vendors. The vague, implausible excitement of my youth is far different from the impatience of returning home to a familiar place.

One of my university students rests his hands on my shoulder, as
we pose with high school students in their uniforms (Spring, 1974)

Korea has filled seven years of my life to the brim. I did my first real teaching there in a heatless classroom with poor lighting, filled with students hungry to improve their English. Living in Korea I delved into my earliest understanding of another culture, one with 5,000 years of history behind it. Here I was, a naive 22-year old recent college graduate, replete with my American history major, then only a 200-year old story. Yet, due to my role as a college instructor, I was the beneficiary of almost automatic respect.

Korean village (1974)

Korea is no longer the country of dirt roads and meandering village lanes that I once explored. Its old-school tea rooms of a past era have morphed into Starbucks and popular Korean coffee shop chains. Today, Korea has the eleventh strongest economy in the world--this from a country that is the size of the U.S. state of Indiana. Korea's Internet is the world's fastest. Its literacy rate is at 98%. Korea, a country with few natural resources, other than its remarkable people, has leveraged generations of hard work, and a near unified vision of middle-class success, to become the Korea that exports its cultural, industrial and high-tech proficiencies throughout the world.

Daegu's monorail, launched in 2015, combines Korea's transportation
and high-tech prowess. The driver-less system slices through the
heart of the city connecting riders with the three older subway lines.

Koreans rarely, if ever, forget a good deed. The Korean government, in a singular show of appreciation, graciously hosts former Peace Corps Volunteers who served there. I plan to return to Korea in October for a reunion program in Seoul, and the chance to visit the campuses where I once taught English. I gaze ahead with excitement and the humbling realization that the very road that leads me to Korea circles back to where my wanderlust first took hold.

With a Yeungnam University student, Gyeongsan, Korea (2014)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Korea Ascending

The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics from Pyeongchang, South Korea was awe inspiring. The pyrotechnics were dazzling, the special effects mesmerizing, the political overtones, stunning. Photos of South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, shaking hands with Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean president Kim Jung-un, hurled across the Internet.

South Korean President Moon and Ms. Kim, sister of North Korea's leader, Kim Jung-un,
shake hands at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea
(Reuters Photo)
Thankfully, Americans are becoming increasingly aware of things Korean. It's long overdue. As they try to sort out the current news emanating large from these 2018 Winter Olympics, their understanding of Korea blends with what they've vicariously absorbed over the years: K-Pop tunes, the Samsung refrigerator standing in their kitchen, the Hyundai car parked in their driveway, the Korean restaurants sprouting everywhere. Many people have asked me, "Hmm, South Korea, is it really safe over there?

Think of the last time you were meeting a friend in a coffee shop. The coffee, the people, your conversation, hover in the foreground. Meanwhile, the music, mostly unrecognizable, quietly paints the background. Similarly, the threats emanating from the North, have largely become background music in the lives of busy South Koreans who are far more focused on their jobs, the latest fads, and just plain keeping up with the daily stress of being Korean.

I recall sitting in a Korean restaurant in Daegu in the mid-70s when I served there as a Peace Corps Volunteer. An article I was reading described the economies of North and South Korea as being remarkably equivalent. The per capita GNP of a South and North Korean were nearly identical. But North Korea was confronting decreasing support from Russia, while South Korea was having to adjust its 1967-1971 5-year plan upward after just the first year because its economy was booming. Today, the per capita GNP of a South Korean is more than 20 times that of a North Korean, $26,000 vs. $1,152.

Here in the U.S., the threats to our democracy are very much more than just background music. Our road and bridge infrastructure has recently been rated D+ by engineering experts. Some observers have even suggested the very nature of our world leadership is at serious risk; they reference the decline of the Roman Empire, by way of historic example.

Meanwhile, South Korea's world class high-speed trains keep getting faster. High speed internet, available everywhere, is said to be the best in the world. Its national airport in Incheon, is regularly rated one of the top airports in the world. Getting from one end of Korea to the other, is often a seamless process. Subways in most Korean cities are clean. Stations are spotless and almost always bike and handicap friendly.

The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul were certainly a demarcation for South Korea's economic coming of age. I recall the new subway lines, sports venues, and electronic billboards that were redefining Seoul's landscape. The modernization of Korea that began in Seoul has long since permeated the entire country. The world's largest department store can be found in Busan, Korea's second largest city on its southeastern coast. Daegu, another major southern city, sports a new monorail that operates autonomously, connecting its other two sophisticated subway lines.

Daegu's Yellow Line, its new monorail system, cuts diagonally across
Korea's 4th largest city, connecting its two older subway lines.  Its quiet, smooth and driverless operation is typical of Korea's world class transportation system.

With these 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korea reintroduces itself to the world. The size of Indiana, South Korea sports the world's 11th or 12th largest economy. Its current leaders are carefully bending toward creating a dialogue with its longterm adversary, North Korea. The United States should carefully temper its more belligerent impulses. The political antics that are eroding our country create risks for the opportunities for peace on the Korean peninsula. South Korea is ascending, let us support, rather than hinder, its upward trajectory. Go Korea!

North and South Korean athletes join together to light the Olympic flame.
Both sides are attempting to create dialogue. Will these efforts lead to
agreements that are more than symbolic?
(BBC Photo)

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Aged-Out in Korea

There are certain realities attached to aging. The good parts are about being wiser, more experienced, and basically, having had a chance to visit more places and meet a wider, more colorful rainbow of people. The flip side of aging, of course, is the stereotyping, the discounting, the outright discrimination, including being treated differently simply because of the number that follows your name.

Several years ago when I was looking for a university English teaching gig in South Korea, I blanketed the country with cover letters and resumes. One memorable encounter came as a result of responding to a posting of an opening at Woosong University. Woosong, a large Korean university, is conveniently located in Daejon, smack in the middle of South Korea. I was rewarded with an invite to interview on Skype. As it turned out, the video function did not work on my end. But no problem, we continued with the audio portion, which was working just fine. By "we," I am referring to the 4 interviewers stationed in Korea, and me.

A Skype interview. Mine was with Woosong University

I thought the interview went really well. We said good-bye, I clicked a button, and somehow, to my utter surprise, the audio remained on. I began listening in to the discussion about me taking place amongst the interviewers. "He's was pretty good," said one, starting off the conversation. Another offered, "Yeah, but did you notice his age?" "Right," says another, "He's about 60!" The conversation continued back and forth, and I realized I was grabbing on even deeper to their conversation. Feeling like a voyeur, I clicked a few icons to try to get Skype to shut down, so I could disconnect from my frustration.

A few days later, the expected email arrived: I hadn't made the cut for the next round of interviews. I decided to let the interviewers know that I overheard their conversation and that I felt I was being judged for my age and not for my skills and experiences. I even quoted some of what I had heard. Back came a rather nasty letter accusing me of being unethical. I appreciated their concern, being caught red-handed, as they were, discriminating based on my age. The story has a happy ending though. I soon interviewed with another university, was offered a position, and taught there for 5 rewarding years.

Discrimination because of someone's age, isn't just about giving wings to your biases, it's ultimately about limiting the capacity of your organization. According to an article in the Korea Herald, older people, on average, tend to be more focused at work, less distracted, and more able to zero-in to the task on hand than younger workers. The same article noted that age discrimination is widespread in Korea, despite legislation to prevent it. Axel Borsch, of the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy, points out that "on balance older employees' productivity and reliability is higher than of their younger colleagues."

In my case, during my 4th year at Yeungnam University, the school that ultimately hired me, I received the Director's Award, including a cash prize, for having the highest student evaluation scores amongst our teaching staff of nearly 50. It would appear that in the eyes of students, at least, I was able to perform the job, and do it well. 

Receiving the Director's Award for teaching excellence in 2016
from the Foreign Language Institute at Yeungnam University

In spite of laws to prevent age discrimination, Korea has a well known history of retiring workers in their 50s and 60s. My former Korean university has a standing practice of not rehiring any faculty member who has turned 65. But it wouldn't be honest to say it's only Koreans treating older people this way. Of those 4 people who interviewed me at Wooseong University, only one was Korean. The three others hailed from the UK, Canada and Australia. It seems that age discrimination isn't just one country's problem. The reality attached to aging? Skip the stereotypes. Older workers, like everyone else, should be judged for what they have to offer a business, school, or other organization. Anything less, is certainly a loss of valuable resources to an organization and may be discrimination.

Fast forward several months. "Set free" from Korea due to my age, my wife and I returned to the U.S. My job-search included one-on-one networking with about two-dozen people. I eventually found a position with Maine's Judicial Court system. Refreshingly, I felt I was judged based on my qualifications, not my age.

My partner, Marsha, having had her own trials and tribulations with ageism, had this to say: "So now we need the culture, ours and others, to catch up and stop treating us as though we suddenly have become incompetent, fragile, or incapable of doing the things we love. The world is operating on an old model of aging that hasn’t caught up to the reality for many of us. We are often discounted and not taken seriously.  We are treated at times as less capable than we are."

National retirement policies are, understandably, culturally based. But whether in Korea, or here in the U.S., we need to reexamine both our centuries-old traditions about age and the consequences those beliefs have on our citizens and our economies. In the 2015 movie, "The Intern," actor Robert De Niro, plays a 70-year old who joins a youth endowed fashion company as an intern. Tired of being bored in retirement, De Niro's character "quietly, yet commandingly, changes everyone around him in the company for the better," describes the movie website, IMDb. Those of us sporting gray hair and more mileage on our tires, are quite capable of making enterprises better and even more productive places. Smarter decision-makers are increasingly coming to this realization.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Koreans On the Camino

A Korean hiker on the Camino. Koreans
are now the ninth largest group walking the Camino.

After returning from a long day touring the scenic northwestern coast of Spain, we were walking along the winding streets of Santiago.  Dusk was settling in. Two young men with backpacks standing before a shop window caught my attention. I thought they might be Korean. They looked somewhat confused, but mostly disappointed. It was a tattoo parlor with a sign indicating that it had closed.

Speaking Korean, I introduced myself as a college English professor from Korea. A bit taken aback, the young hikers said they were from Inchon and Ulsan respectively, cities in South Korea. I mentioned I had gotten a tattoo myself just the day before. I gave directions to the parlor I had used--in fact I handed them business cards from the parlor I used that I had in my pocket and they were on their way, shaking their heads. Just another magical story along the Camino. There are many, but this one, with a bit of a Korean flavor.

Interest in the Camino de Santiago seems to be exploding. The path of St. James, for centuries a modest religious and spiritual pilgrimage, has gotten new legs, no doubt helped by social media and a number of movies that have popularized the walk. And it seems to be a favorite destination for Koreans, in particular. Koreans are now the ninth largest group walking the Camino. More Koreans walk the Camino then do Dutch, Australians or Canadians.

A Korean student taking a break from
his university commitments.

Our recent experience walking the 800-kilometers of the Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied du Port, France, to Santiago, Spain, bore this out. We met Koreans of all ages every step of the way: retired teachers, business people, students, housewives and even a young man who had just completed his army service. The “Camino culture” seems to be a good fit for activity-oriented Koreans who regularly take to the trails wherever they live in Korea.

These two friendly Koreans opened an inn and restaurant
along the Camino de Santiago. Their paella was delicious.

Koreans have many connections to the Camino de Santiago. Christianity, especially Catholicism, brings many people to this pilgrimage; churches dot every kilometer of the Way, as the Camino is called. And of course, Christianity has a broad presence in Korea, with up to 30% of Koreans identifying as either Catholic or protestant. Previous Korean pilgrims have popularized the Camino de Santiago by publishing books such as Kim Hyosun’s The Way to Santiago, and making films about their experience. A Camino of sorts has even been developed around Korea’s Cheju Island, traditionally a popular vacation destination lying just off Korea’s southern coast.

Two young Korean ladies walking the Camino. As Christians,
the Camino represents a religious pilgrimage.

It seems to me Koreans also bring their own unique culture to the Camino. Back home, Koreans famously apply their puli-puli (hurry-hurry) approach to everything they do from driving, to working, to studying. On the Camino, as they do in Korea, Koreans whizzed-by us with amazing regularity.

A young American I met along the Camino told me he believes two factors bring most pilgrims to the Camino, faith and money. And while people from around the world walk the Camino for many reasons, Koreans certainly bring faith and their credentials as members of a vibrant middle-class economy all the way from their homeland.

As my young Korean friends set off with excitement to locate my tattoo parlor, I couldn't help but think that Koreans are leaving their unique imprint along the Camino, just as they have nearly everywhere around the world.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Becoming Myself: A Korean Photographic Essay

"Home is not just the place where you happen to be born. It's the place where you become yourself."
Pico Iyer

On my 22nd birthday, my relationship with Korea began on the wings of serendipity. On that day, Sept. 2nd, 1973, I received an official acceptance letter from the U.S Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., telling me I was being assigned to serve in South Korea. 

Several months later, in Daegu, a city I had never before heard of,  I was about to complete my in-country training. As he did with each of the other fifty or so volunteers, Dr. Chae, the Korean director of our program, gave me a Korean name. That name, Song Su Nam, gave root to its own nearly novelesque imagery: an old wise man who lived on the Korean peninsula during the time of the Chinese Song dynasty. So I ask rhetorically, when exactly did my relationship with Korea really begin?

A family aboard an overnight ferry bound for Cheju Island (Spring, 1975)

Dining in a Korean Chinese restaurant (1974)

Is being home a place, a presence, or is it more like a journey? And what do we make of the places in between? 

Couple on a Daegu public bus (1974)

Korean elders. This man wears the traditional Korean horsehair hat (1974)

"Am I closer to some other power? Is some other source, some other energy, closer to me than I am to myself?"
Meister Eckhart

Downtown Daegu (1974) before the era of private cars

Downtown Daegu in 2013. In today's Korea, luxury cars hardly draw a second glance

The old and the new in the northeastern
coastal city of Kangnun

Young women in rented Hanbok, Korean traditional dress.
Here taking selfies in Seoul (2016)
Busan's Haeundae Beach during the off-season (Sept. 2014)

Living in Korea makes other parts of Asia much more accessible. By air, Japan is less than two hours away, as is Beijing. For non-Korean citizens, that city provides access to North Korea. Taiwan and Hong Kong are also popular destinations for Koreans and expats alike. Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, are following, or attempting to follow, South Korea's recent path from a developing country to a shining example of economic success. South and North Korea had nearly identical per capita GNPs as recently as 1974. Today, South Korea's GNP, per capita, is fifteen times that of North Korea.

Fashion makes a modest entrance on the streets of North Korea's capital
Pyongyang. This scene is on the main thoroughfare at the entrance of
the city's main subway station (Summer, 2014)
College students at Wonsan Agricultural University, Wonsan, DPRK (2014)

Hanbok-clad tour guide at Juche Tower in Pyongyang (2014)

Buddhist monks visiting ancient temple in Mandalay, Myanmar (2016)

The King of Chinese Chess reigns over all, Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing, China

Yeungnam University is one of Korea's largest universities and boasts a magnificent, sprawling campus. I spent 5-years here teaching, and learning to no end.

The university library is a campus focal point.
The pond in the foreground is a favorite spot of mine for
watching turtles sunning themselves and for enjoying
fried squid and potatoes sold by a local woman.

Tranquil "Lovers' Lane." Here pictured during Cherry Blossom season.

A quiet moment for a gentleman who sits alone
 in the stands of the old soccer field.

With a student during a Saturday Seminar when I had the opportunity
to give a presentation on my trip to North Korea.

"If the only prayer you can ever say in your entire life is 
'thank you,' it will be enough."
Meister Eckhart

Standing in a field of cosmos (Seoul, 1975)

In a field of cosmos (Gyeong-ju, 2014)

My Korean name, Song Su Nam, 
freshly tattooed (2015)

"Oh, how incomprehensible everything was, and actually sad, although it was also beautiful. One knew nothing. One lived and ran about the earth and rode through forests, and certain things looked so challenging and promising and nostalgic: a star in the evening, a blue harebell, a reed-green pond, the eye of a person or of a cow. And sometimes it seemed that something never seen yet long desired was about to happen, that a veil would drop from it all; but then it passed, nothing happened, the riddle remained unsolved, the secret spell unbroken, and in the end one grew old...and still one knew nothing perhaps, was still waiting and listening."
from Narcissus and Goldmund, by Herman Hesse