“How was your visit to Korea?” asked friends and colleagues after my return to New Zealand. This simple question has not been easy to answer. I need an hour to explain how it was a stimulating and educational experience that gave me insight into an ancient civilization and a rich and unique culture. Recently, I had the pleasure of joining 23 other New Zealand and Australian teachers at the Korean Studies Workshop 2009. This workshop event is hosted annually by the Korea Foundation and Korea University to provide an opportunity for Australasian educators to gain knowledge of Korea’s society, culture, and history.People-friendly Koreans
I ar r ived in Korea a few days ahead of the delegation. Asia New Zealand Foundation had offered participants this option. Stepping out of Incheon International Airport into Seoul’s busy traffic and hot, humid climate reminded me that I was going to be out of my comfort zone for the next 19 days, but I looked forward to the challenge. My first impressions of the Korean people were very positive and this was confirmed time and again. Whenever I looked lost or needed directions, people would stop to assist. When in doubt, I would simply open my subway map and wait for someone to ask “Can I help you?”
Having come from winter and long working days, I was eager to explore Seoul. From the observatory of N Seoul tower, I was able to appreciate the scale of this massive city, while a visit to the War Memorial Museum provided valuable insight into the history of the Korean War. As a New Zealander, I felt honored that Korea had made such an effort to remember the allied contributions to their defense, and I was impressed to see a memorial to New Zealand’s war dead.Life in Korea
The Workshop began at Korea University with a lavish meal and formal welcome. Gifts were exchanged and I was pleased that our first lesson covered the Korean language and etiquette. As educators, we were eager to learn about the Korean education system. Our visit to Daeil Foreign Language High School was therefore an invaluable experience, and it was there that I experienced teaching a Korean class. I found the students highly motivated and with a good command of the English language. They responded well to questions asked by myself and another teacher, and we were impressed by their knowledge of New Zealand. We gave each student a small gift and hopefully widened their knowledge of our country. I t quickly became apparent how impor tant education is to Koreans. Compared to New Zealand, school hours are long. School for my students begins at 8:40 a.m. and finishes at 3:20 p.m., with most students off site by 4 p.m. unless involved in sports or music. Daeil, by contrast, began at 7:30 a.m. and finished at 6 p.m., with students either remaining at school until 10 p.m. or attending “cram classes.” One of the goals of the Workshop was to spend an evening with a Korean family. I had the pleasure of visiting the home of Agnes, who lived in an apartment near Daeil with her family. This visit provided an opportunity to learn about each other’s countries and to make new friends. The school and family visit was regarded by most Workshop participants as the highlight of the program.Past and Contemporary Korea
An emphasis throughout the program was on Korean history, both ancient and contemporary, and this was dealt with through lectures, visits to the National Museum and a palace, and tours of historical villages and temples, during a five-day field trip outside of Seoul.
Everyone was looking forward to our excursion to the demilitarized zone. A visit to this 4-kilometer wide strip of land, separating prosperous South Korea from an impoverished and belligerent North, was a sobering experience. From an observatory we were able to look across the DMZ toward North Korea. The Number 3 Tunnel, accessed by an interception tunnel, revealed the threat facing South Korea and the thought that other tunnels might lay undiscovered must cause great unease. At the South Korean edge of the DMZ stood the Dorasan Railway Station, fully operational, but without passengers. Dorasan serves as a beacon for a better future – a time when joint ventures bring the two Koreas together.
On a journey into Korea’s ancient history, I was impressed with our visit to Changdeokgung, the former residence of Korean royalty. Considerable architectural beauty and historical relics occupy this vast walled palace complex. The visit to Hwaseong Fortress, a few days later, added another dimension to our knowledge of Korean history. My favorite attraction was the royal burial mounds at Cheonmachong. From this Workshop, I learned that Koreans were the first to invent moveable printing type, first wooden, then metallic. Our visit to Cheongju’s Early Printing Museum demonstrated how Jikji, the world’s oldest book, was printed.
Another feature of Korea, different from other Asian countries, is that several religions have dominated at different times. Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity have all influenced Korean history. Our field trip took us to two World Heritage Buddhist sites. At Seokguram Grotto sat a Buddha surrounded by guardians and lesser deities. This is an incredible feat of engineering with huge granite blocks quarried far away and brought here, in the 8th century. Bulguksa was equally impressive, a vast Buddhist complex set on terraces above Gyeongju. I took the time to soak up the atmosphere by wandering through the temples, bridges, and pagodas that comprise this 6th century site.Diversity of Korean Culture
A huge effort was also made throughout the Workshop to show us different aspects of Korean culture. We participated in several traditional activities such as a tea ceremony, archery, printing, and taffy making. Unfortunately, my taffy was a tangled mess but our instructor sorted it out. A fun-filled experience was dressing up in traditional costumes. I thought I looked dashing in my military official’s outfit. For me, the most memorable evening during my time in Korea was the performance “Miso” at the Chongdong Theater, a musical featuring traditional dance and instrumentals. With a front row seat I felt like I was part of the show. Every effort was made to educate us about Korean food, and our dining experiences varied greatly, which included buffet and outdoor barbeque. Food styles included bibimbap, bulgogi and samgyetang – there is certainly a culture surrounding eating in Korea. Evidence of the Korean economic miracle was everywhere, but was particularly evident at the Hyundai shipbuilding yards in Ulsan. This is one of the powerhouses of the economy, while the words of founder Chung Ju-yung that “human potential is unlimited and promises everyone boundless possibilities” summed up the positive attitude of modern Korea.
I returned to New Zealand a friend of the Korean people and say gamsa hamnida to the Korea Foundat ion, Korea Universi ty, and Asia NZ Foundation for making possible this fascinating insight into another culture. The lectures were informative, the field trips carefully selected, the food was delicious, and the accommodations luxurious. Our assistants and guides were courteous and respectful. We even got to see a solar eclipse! Who arranged that? For me, the Workshop succeeded in building new friendships and provided an open and honest look at Korea’s past, present, and future challenges. Annyeonghi gyeseyo!