What a difference 40 years can make!

I returned to Korea in October, 2011, with my husband Richard in tow, after a 40-year interval. I served there in the Peace Corps as an English teacher in a girls’ middle school in the provincial capital, Cheju/Jeju City, on the island of Cheju/Jeju, (Cheju was the way it was romanized in 1970-71. Jeju is the way it is now romanized.) I had never been back. Richard had never been to Korea.

The year 2011 was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. It also marked 30 years since the Peace Corps left Korea and 20 years since the founding of Korea’s own version of the Peace Corps. A few years ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) in Korea decided to honor the Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and started organizing “Revisits” for anyone who had served in Korea during the 15 years Peace Corps was there. So we traveled to Korea as guests of the Korean government. This sixth Revisit trip of more than 80 visitors was coordinated by the cultural arm of the government, Korea Foundation. There were two Peace Corps couples on the trip who served in Peace Corps with me. Pat and Mike DeVito met in my training group, served on the mainland in the town of Daegu, and married during their Peace Corps service. Joe Reilly was in my training group and served on Jeju and during that time met his future wife Kate Carty, who came in a later group and served on the mainland.

I have put together three albums on Korea at: picasaweb.google.com/sueannallen1.

The first album is Korea 2011; the second is Korea 1970-71; and the third juxtaposes photos from the two time periods-Korea Then and Now. I hope the commentary below will give you a glimpse into the back-story of the photos.

To say the country has changed is an understatement. When the Peace Corps left Korea in 1981, it was a developing country. In 1991, Korea formed its own “Peace Corps.” In 10 years it went from a recipient to a donor of foreign assistance. Among former Peace Corps Volunteers, those for whom this was the first time back, the changes were overwhelming. We’d been warned! When we lived there, Korea was a rural country struggling to recover from 50 years of often brutal Japanese occupation and the devastation of the Korean War and internal civil conflict. Even in Jeju City, the provincial capital, there were some thatched roofed houses and many families lacked indoor plumbing. Korea today has an incredibly dynamic economy. I know that is because of the hard work and diligence of the Korean people.  It is a land of bullet trains, electronic communications and prosperity. Korea implemented national health insurance over a 12-year period between 1977 and 1989, and people now enjoy greater longevity on average than those in the United States (while spending less per capita on health care). We stayed at a hotel with Japanese style toilets that are so complicated it took us awhile to figure out how to flush. There were four espresso stands within a hundred feet of our hotel in Seoul. A lot of “charm” is gone.  But life is prosperous, comfortable and convenient for what seems to be a large middle class.  My former students all would be in that category. Very comfortable. Financially successful. They and the family with whom I lived all travel extensively, something that was not even possible in 1971. Some of them indicated their mixed feelings about the nature of development, that they enjoy the benefits but also miss some of the traditional ways.  I experienced the traditional values including relationships, generosity and gratitude, which seemed completely intact.

I am still feeling overwhelmed by the generous expressions of gratitude during this trip! I think I may have had the best experience possible because I reconnected with so many people, most of whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years!

I had lost touch with all except my one “best friend,” Ae-ri-sse, who now writes her name as Alice. We kept writing to each other through these 40 years and I saw her a couple of years ago in Los Angeles when she came to visit her brother. Although I had written to some of my students for the first 5-10 years after I left and to the family I lived with off-and-on until a few years ago, I didn’t have current contact information for any of them. Except one former student, Yang Jae-Sim, who came as a visiting professor to Carroll College in 2009 and was put in touch with me by Bob Swartout, a fellow PCV who teaches at Carroll and is instrumental in bringing over Korea professors and students. Bob and his wife Kyung-Ok also got in touch with one of my former students, Hong Sook-Jeong, whose daughter was a student at Carroll College. By getting in touch with just these few people, the network spread. Part of my preparation was to have a selection of photos digitalized and put into a Picasa slideshow as well as a photo album (the Korea 1970-71 album). This turned out to be a highlight for my former students (who are now in their early 50s), my host family, my friend Alice, and a couple of diving women I’ll tell you about in a minute.

All kinds of plans were laid, and our short visit (12 days) was filled to the brim! We planned a pre-official visit to Jeju, then the official six-day visit, which included another overnight trip to Jeju. The visit was intense: we were always surrounded by other people, often conferring on cell phones (in a car with three other people, often two were on their cell phones at the same time!), and had little “down time.” It was also magical and mind-boggling!

I met up with two groups of students, seven to eight students per group, from two different classes. One class, including Professor Yang Jae-Sim, were 7th graders whom I taught for only one semester, thus I really don’t remember them. They hosted a wonderful dinner on Jeju, to which they invited my co-teacher and the math teacher with whom I was good friends.  Lots of stories of those days flowed, and it was really nice.  Even though I couldn’t remember the students as individuals, they all remembered me!

The group of students that I taught in both 7th and 8th grade and who were members of an English Club they called Mirinae are the ones I really remember well. I had lots of old photos of them, which helped me identify them. Meeting up with my former students after 40 years was absolutely the best aspect of the Revisit, the most heart-warming, the most awesome, and had the most impact on my feelings toward Korea.  Three of them (two still living on Jeju) arranged our pre-official visit and served as hosts extraordinaire! We were accompanied by one of the students, Professor Lee Sook-Hyang, from the international airport to the domestic airport and our flight to Jeju and met at the airport by the other two, Hong Sook-Jeong and Ko Hyun-Sook, plus Alice plus Jae-Sim.  The three “arrangers” took us around to see all the things I wanted to revisit, as well as including Alice.

The first day was absolutely amazing! We went back to Udo, a two-square mile island I had visited a number of times as a Peace Corps Volunteer. While the whole island of Jeju is known for its diving women, Udo was where I had met several. It was a small island without roads or vehicles. I traveled there by ferry, sitting on bags of rice and surrounded by people returning to the island after shopping on the “big island” of Jeju. A couple of different fellow PCVs had accompanied me at various times, and we walked across the island to one of the two villages. I met the diving women and went diving (in the shallow waters, although they are known for deep dives of up to 20 meters, holding their breath for up to two minutes). They dive for edible shellfish and seaweed (no pearls!), and one of them invited me to live with her family. (I did try to extend for a third year with Peace Corps with the intent of living on Udo and doing TB work, but it wasn’t approved by Peace Corps.) Now the diving women are a designated “national treasure,” and Udo is a very developed tourist destination, with car ferries leaving every half hour and tourists by the busload arriving to take in the treasures. It’s still a beautiful island, sparsely populated, but with restaurants and coffee shops to serve the tourists. By an amazing serendipity, on the nostalgia trip to Udo on the first day of my “revisit,” we stopped at the “Ha Ha Ho Ho” coffee house where the young owner’s aunt knew many of the diving women. When I pulled out my album and showed her the 40-year-old pictures, she went and got two of the women, a 78-year-old and an 83-year-old.  When they returned a few minutes later, the excitement and hugs flew around, and we all talked for almost an hour. One woman even remembered the sweater she was wearing in her photo!  Both still dive! They also recognized the woman with whose family I had hoped to live. She had died in 2008, while diving. When we finally had to leave, I gave them the prints – and I promised to email the digital versions to the proprietor so they could be shared around the island.

On the way back, we stopped at “Sunrise Hill” (Seongsan Ilchulbong) on the eastern end of Jeju, and, while Alice and I waited and chatted, Richard hiked up with two of my students, which he did again later with Joe Reilly on our official visit. I am so grateful to my student organizers who had planned for all the people and sites I wanted to visit without over-scheduling us.  During the next couple of days, we spent a lot of time on the island with my students.  I was looking around for a traditional thatched-roof house, which used to be common even in the city, but now, even in the countryside, I couldn’t find one.  Finally, when we were driving far out of Jeju City, I finally spotted a thatched roof… and then realized we were entering a “traditional cultural village,” preserved as a heritage site!  We visited a Folk Culture Museum and discovered the time period it covered was the 1960s and 1970s (when I was there)! My students also took us to a traditional country restaurant (thatched roof and all) and a traditional tea house.  Hyun-Sook picked up a guitar, started playing and singing traditional Korean songs and American folk songs I’d taught them. We joined in, and by the time we got to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” we were all misty-eyed with nostalgia.

Our days were filled with talking, laughing, eating. We seemed to eat multi-course lunches, go for tea/coffee, then go out for multi-course dinners. A student I don’t remember at all (the others said she was not a good student) is now the wealthy owner of a very nice restaurant that is filled with artwork by well-known Korean artists, from which she gave me gifts of a tea set and another beautiful piece of pottery.  In fact, we received so many gifts, many of them fragile, that we had to add two suitcases to our luggage!

Richard also climbed Mt. Halla, the volcanic mountain that forms the island of Jeju, finding it more difficult than I had described, since the “easy” route we used to take no longer goes all the way up.

After the three students accompanied us back to Seoul, the others from that class, all living on the mainland now, except one who came over from Japan, gathered for a Reunion.  They hadn’t gotten together with each other in all these years, and they vowed to do that twice a year from now on. They are now making plans to visit us in Seattle in 2014. They are quite impressive women—a university English and phonetics professor, an English teacher for airline personnel, a kindergarten English teacher, a high school history teacher, a professor of political thought in Japan (in Japanese, with three books she gave me in Japanese, with partial English translations), a professor of women’s studies at Ewha University (published in anthropology), a former Korean Airlines staff now managing with her husband a chocolate business they own on Jeju, and five of them have raised families, and some are starting to be grandmas. Three never married, which I think would have been quite unusual when we were in Korea, but they are successful, career-oriented, and adventurous. They all told me how much I had influenced their lives.  It’s so rare for a teacher to see any results of the teaching we do, so many years down the road.

It was incredible. More food, of course, then they insisted on taking me shopping for a hand-crafted necklace by a local artist at a wonderful little shop (they noticed I wear necklaces—I’d taken several to allow me to change up my one “dressy” outfit for the numerous receptions).  I love the necklace we picked out—and I was impressed when the shop delivered more information on the artist to our hotel a couple of days later!  We went to Ewha University to project my slides of Korea from 1970-71.  One of my “students” passed out song sheets with the American folksongs we used to sing, and, again, everyone joined in. After so many years, to be together was so magical, to have their appreciation be so evident was a blessing, and to be saying good-byes again already was difficult.

During the official site visit, when I went to see my school, I hadn’t thought that would be very meaningful.  I mean, I wouldn’t know anyone, and the building didn’t mean much to me.  However, the principal and English teachers were very welcoming, plus my co-teacher and several of my students joined us.  The building was in the same place, but what used to be an open field was completely built up all around the school, which has been rebuilt four times.  They pulled out a yearbook with my photo in it, and I shared my photos.  Besides now having heat in the winter, they even have air conditioning in the summer!  We watched the young American teaching an English class using a wall-sized computer touch screen to do what we used to do with hand-drawn visual aids!  When they asked me to speak to the students, I did a short intro in Korean, then a very elementary intro in English, geared for student comprehension, which the Korean English teacher (the American’s co-teacher) interpreted for them!  Really!  These were second year students, so I was disappointed in this approach.  Anyway, they were having fun and enjoying learning.  “It’s all good.”

After our school visits, Joe Reilly (the only other Peace Corps volunteer on this trip who served on Jeju) and I were able to ditch our assigned guides and go with my history-teacher student, Hyun-Sook, Richard, and Alice out for an evening. The rest of the official visit was spent with Joe and Alice (and our respective assigned guides and drivers!), going out to Seongsan Ilchulbong again and doing some sightseeing the guides insisted on (after we were told that we were in charge ).  I know Joe will be modest about this, but his Korean was very impressive.  I think for all of us, as we were there and struggling to say a few things, more words popped into our heads that we had completely forgotten.  But Joe was dredging up words from his memory that I’m sure I never knew.  He was interpreting for me. (Alice, who doesn’t speak English, interprets for me too, by putting someone else’s statement in “easy Korean,” but sometimes I can’t understand even her.)

The “official” week in Seoul included fabulous receptions, informational briefings on education and health (the two areas in which Peace Corps Volunteers in Korea worked), as well as a little free time to spend with Joe and Kate and Pat and Mike and the other former PCVs on the Revisit. We went to a lovely “tea” at the home of the outgoing American Ambassador, a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea in the 80s. She was gracious and humble and felt like “one of us.” She had been on the front page of Korean newspapers when she did a brief dive with the Korean diving women a couple of years ago – and came up holding an octopus they had handed to her underwater.

Richard, Joe, and I spent a delightful evening with Kyung-ok, who was in on her way down to Jeju, visiting family and friends. She brought us together with the daughter of my student Hong Sook-Jeong.

The visit with members of the Korean “Peace Corps” (KOICA) volunteers was quite interesting.  We had a chance to talk with volunteers who were getting ready to leave for their service. I was able to pair up with a young woman from Jeju.  It turns out she was a student of Ko Hyun-Sook, my former student who teaches high school history.  Hyun-Sook is one of the ones who never married and who told me how much I influenced her desire to travel and bring back experiences to infuse in her history lessons.  The KOICA volunteer told me how my student, her teacher, had influenced her to want to travel and to join KOICA!  The links are so gratifying.  (Uh-oh, I’m starting to cry again.)

While I was doing some of the official “excursions” to the Ministry of Education and so on, Richard spent a day in Seattle’s sister city of Daejeon, met the Mayor and Council leaders, and visited Seattle Park (named in honor of the sister city relationship) and some historic sites. He was treated royally: a staff person picked him up at the hotel in Seoul and rode the bullet train down and back with him (an hour’s journey at 100+ miles per hour!), and they had a translator, driver, and the Mayor’s foreign relations staff person accompanying him for the time in Daejeon. A picture of Richard with the Mayor was in the newspaper the next day.

Besides all the official visits, great food, etc., I also got to spend a day with the family I lived with in Jeju, who now live in a suburb of Seoul.  When I lived with them, they were a young couple with two toddlers. (The wife, Lee Myo-Ja, is only two years older than me, but the age difference seemed greater due to our family status.)  The husband, Lee Jong-Hun, runs marathons; he’s run 128!  Talk about fit!!  More gifts: books he’s written, books of her art exhibits, another wonderful (and fragile) pot which she made.  We have cleared a shelf to house our art treasures!  All I had to give were copies of the old Korean photos, which everyone seemed to love.

Only after the official visit ended did we make our way to the nice roof-top pool and hot tubs at the hotel.  The pool was cool, and Richard used it as a “cold dip” during his hot-tubbing, and the tubs were relaxing.  It would have been nice to have slowed the pace of the visit a little and not to have been so exhausted at the end of each day that we were too tired to even relax in a hot tub!!

It was very rewarding for me to get reacquainted with old friends, my host family, co-teachers and about 15 of the students I taught.  After a little Q&A about what we were doing in Korea, the taxi driver who took us to the train to go to the airport on the day we left told us how much Korea owed to Peace Corps, how much he appreciated what we had done for them, and he even refused to let us pay for our taxi ride!!  Can you believe that??

I enjoyed and relished every moment! Of all the marvelous gifts with which we were blessed, the best gift of all, even beyond the fantastic generosity, was the gift of time from all those who stepped into my present from my past, the gifts of singing, laughter, and tears. So, thank you to a country and a people who welcomed me in 1970 and welcomed me back in grand style in 2011!

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