I’ve described how my little orb-weavers at Central Girl’s Middle School pulled a Ray Bradbury on me by carefully embroidering my bland Sears denim jacket and transforming me into “The Illustrated Peace Corps Man of Cheju Island.” When I wear this jacket now, 40 years after the fact, I am not only a walking, talking blackboard of island lore and landmarks, but when anyone gazes on jacket detail the images invariably quiver into life as a storybook tale of my Peace Corps Volunteer experiences long ago on The Blessed Isle. There is no escape.
All Peace Corps Volunteers adopted Korean names. These were in fact bestowed on embryonic Volunteers by Peace Corps staff members during training camp as a rite of passage. These in-country names were part symbolic, part pragmatic and part whimsy.
The first letter of a Volunteer’s surname set into motion the ritual naming ceremony. For example, Jim McGuire in our training group became “Mang” (“The Magnificent”). In my own case “Nemeth” became “Nam” (“South”; a fairly common Korean surname). My given name was “Dong-il” which, when spoken, has ambiguous meaning (it could, for example, mean “first-class poop”). Thank you Peace Corps staff! However, when written in Chinese characters “Dong-il” unambiguously signifies “East #1.” No harm done there and, in fact, “Nam Dong-il” (South East #1) is an appropriate name for a geographer who is often on the road. My Peace Corps Korean name was thus eerily prophetic of how my life and career over the long term has shaped up.
Why my students didn’t perceive me as the handsome young man I saw in the mirror in 1974, and instead sewed me into perpetuity as a long-nosed, mouth-breathing, white-haired hayseed with acne, is a mystery I will have to take with me to my grave. The kids got the glasses right, however: John Lennon steel-rim eyeglasses with unbreakable, flexible frames were elective Government Issue for Peace Corps Volunteers in 1972, and an example of unexpected freebies that began to materialize once I made the Peace Corps recruitment shortlist. I make no claim to know how Peace Corps bureaucracy operated. Sometimes I wonder if anybody knew. What I do know is that after I had survived months and months of screening, I reached a stage where the bureaucracy decided they could begin to spend some real money on me as a prospective volunteer.
This all began with an invitation letter to join an advanced recruitment workshop in Denver for a week on the taxpayer’s dime. I was invited to report to the Brown Palace Hotel (I think it was) to meet the Korea Volunteer recruiter team. Wow! I approached it as if it were a blind date. If all went well I gathered, Peace Corps Korea and I would become officially “engaged” at the end of my week in Denver. Then, after another few months, the honeymoon (three months of training camp) would commence. The actual marriage would take place after the honeymoon, meaning that if I performed well enough in training camp I would ceremonially at that time become an official Peace Corps Volunteer, having been judged qualified to commence duties at my service site.
Fitting for eyeglass frames was part of the workshop activities. The optician was a jovial bloke, full of questions, and I thought we had a fine conversation. In retrospect I have concluded that the optician was a government-paid psychiatrist in disguise. Shrinks seemed to be everywhere at the workshop and the eyeglass man was a ploy for the recruiting team to contrive special circumstances in order “to see what condition my condition was in” (Kenny Rogers, 1968). They must have figured they would need an entire week to discern if I and the other male volunteers were not simply clever-by-half draft dodgers faking our enthusiasm for Peace Corp Volunteer service. When those of us who were not de-selected during our screening in Denver finally arrived as a group in Korea for training camp, it became obvious early on that the psychiatric team at the workshop had given a pass to a few suspect trainees who clearly should have not made the cut.
For six nights Joni Mitchell (I swear) was perched on a tall stool singing “Both Sides Now” for us in the swank Brown Palace hotel bar. We Volunteers-to-be meanwhile struck up new friendships over pitchers of beer-on-tap to wash down basketfuls of popcorn. Peace Corps recruiters had really pulled out all the plugs to win us over to a firm commitment it seemed.
On the second night at the workshop a mystery was solved. There seemed to be another contingent of Volunteer-recruits at the hotel beside the Korea group and the explanation was forthcoming. There was in fact, two Volunteer-recruit groups meeting in the same hotel at the same time. And this was no coincidence: Washington staff was going to give at least some of the recruits an opportunity to choose between either Peace Corps in Korea — or Peace Corps in Nepal! Was this significant news also part of the battery of their psychiatric tests? I was not sure how to respond to this sudden opportunity.
My whole life after Peace Corps service in Korea was shaped by that two-year experience. Talk about a path not taken! That would be Nepal. I could have volunteered for Nepal and today be writing for an electronic newspaper called Nepal World Wide instead of Jeju World Wide. Whenever the profound decision I made that week in Denver crosses my mind, I slip temporarily into a tenuous and bifurcated mode of being like Schrodinger’s Cat.
By Wednesday, people were stopping me in the hotel halls, elevators and staircases and asking “Nepal or Korea?” Although I had gone to Denver thinking my future as a Volunteer in Korea was a done deal, by Wednesday my plans were wavering. There were some experienced returned Volunteers from both Nepal and Korea at the workshop. They formally and informally shared with all the recruits what they knew of the virtues and vices of each country as a Volunteer destination. We would have to decide by Thursday noon. By Thursday morning, the difference between the two Volunteer sites (at least for male recruits) was reduced ad absurdum to this: 1) Nepal: a paradise for dope-heads, but don’t expect to find any fair maidens to cozy up with; 2) Korea: a superabundance of Babes, but no weed indeed.
I discovered eventually that these simplistic truth claims turned out to be at most half-truths. Korea did indeed have a drop-dead beauty around nearly every corner — and it was a rare rural bus ride that didn’t have few old-timers (over 60 years of age), both men and women, puffing the dragon (ranging from lowly hemp sack to high-grade homegrown). But I am no fan of the weed. To my everlasting joy I learned in Denver and then discovered for myself that Korean farmers had invented and developed to perfection a flavorful and inexpensive alcoholic beverage guaranteed to knock your socks off:
Next Week: The Illustrated Peace Corps Man (Part 2)