In response to a request from the Korea Foundation to reflect on my personal experiences in Korea over the past 45 years, I gratefully offer these reminiscences.
I first came to Korea in the fall of 1966, shortly after graduating from college in the United States. Five years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had created a new organization, called the Peace Corps, which sent Americans to less developed countries around the world to provide development assistance and to promote friendship and understanding between the people of the United States and other nations. I applied to the Peace Corps during my senior year in college and was overjoyed to receive my letter of acceptance several months later. I was surprised, however, to learn that I had been selected as a member of the first Peace Corps group to be sent to Korea. My knowledge of that country was limited to gray and bleak scenes of the Korean War, remembered faintly from newspaper photographs and newsreels I had seen as a child. And so it was with some nervousness and apprehension that I embarked upon this new adventure. Stranger in a Backward Land
I was one of 100 Peace Corps Volunteers who came to Korea that September. We had just completed three months of teacher training in Hawaii and had learned some rudiments of the Korean language and a little bit about Korean culture. After a few days of orientation in Seoul, we spread out across the country to take up our teaching assignments. My assignment was to teach English at Gongju High School, an all-boys’ school in Gongju, South Chungcheong Province.
During the mid-1960s Korea was still recovering from the devastating impact of the Korean War. Gongju, like many other small cities and towns, was poor and dilapidated. Private automobiles were rare; and except for the main thoroughfare running into the city, its streets and byroads were unpaved. Often, after a heavy rain, the streets of Gongju became a sea of mud.
It seemed to me that people in Gongju were living very close to nature in those days. In the classroom where I taught my students, a single stove, fueled by charcoal briquettes, was the sole source of heat, barely enough to provide a small amount of warmth when the weather was cold. At such times, students and teachers alike could do little more than draw their coats more closely around them and spur themselves to concentrate on the tasks at hand. In the boarding house where I lived, a bowl of water, left in a corner of my room overnight, would become solid ice by morning. It was hardly an atmosphere conducive to study; yet, most of the students I knew applied themselves vigorously and with great purpose to their work.
In those days, foreigners were rarely seen in Korea, not only in provincial towns such as Gongju, but even in Seoul. Everyday, when I ventured out onto the streets of Gongju, people would turn and study me with rapt, open-eyed attention (unlike today, when I am happily ignored wherever I go). Invariably, a parade of children would follow me, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, shouting a deafening chorus of hellos. Neither before nor since have I been so interesting.
While living in Gongju, I spent much of my time outside the classroom trying to improve my Korean. For me, the physical challenges of Korean life were far less difficult to overcome than the inability to communicate on anything more than a basic level with the people around me, especially with my fellow teachers at the high school. Frustrated by my verbal inadequacy, and wishing to have a more meaningful relationship with my colleagues, I decided to become a smoker. At that time, almost all Korean men smoked cigarettes, and offering cigarettes to one another was a common ritual of male bonding. I had not been a smoker up until that time, but after several weeks of refusing offers of cigarettes from other teachers, I went to a corner store and bought a pack of Shintajins. I began offering them to my colleagues, and soon started accepting cigarettes in return. And so began the all-too-common and sad story of a habitual smoker. It was only with great difficulty, more than 10 years later, that I finally kicked the habit.
After one and a half years in Gongju, I moved to Daejeon, where I worked on a province-wide teacher training project at the provincial board of education for six months, and then to a final Peace Corps year in Seoul, from 1968 to 1969. During that last year, as the coordinator of an in-service training program for Korean teachers of English, I traveled the length and breadth of the country and developed an appreciation for the rich variety of Korean life. Enriching Life of a Rural Community
I returned to Korea at the beginning of 1973, this time as a graduate student in anthropology from Columbia University. After several months of searching for a rural community in which to do my fieldwork, I decided upon a village in North Chungcheong Province and went to live there with my wife in the spring of that year. (My wife had also been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea, so one might say that Korea played the role of matchmaker in bringing us together.)
Over three years had passed since I had last been in Korea, and the country was poised to begin its dramatic economic take-off. But the development that had occurred by then was largely concentrated in the large cities, especially in Seoul. The countryside lagged behind and was not so very different from what it had been in the mid- and late 1960s. Less than a year had passed since the introduction of electricity to our village, and its use was still a novelty. In most houses, the sole evidence of this new development was a single bare light bulb hanging from a cord in the ceiling.
Most people in our village lived in poverty. In my household census I would ask “what property did you inherit from your father?” and, often, the response would be “the only thing I inherited was poverty.” Indeed, there were many children whose parents could not afford to send them to high school and many adults who were hard-pressed to feed themselves and their families. For the most part, however, those who had a little more would share a bit with those who had less, and the people lived together in peace. At happy times or sad times, such as weddings or funerals, both the rich and the poor offered each other a helping hand and participated fully in the celebrations or solemn ceremonies of their neighbors. In this, it seems to me, they followed the injunction of St. Paul: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.”
In the nearly two years that we lived in the village the people shared generously with us their histories and their daily lives. I came to know the full range of their successes and disappointments, their hopes and fears. But, more than anything else, I learned what it means to live in a close community of people, the sort of community that is hard to find in today’s world. For me, this opportunity to observe and participate in the life of such a community was a deeply enriching experience. Remarkable Development
In the 35 years that have passed since I completed my field research in Korea, I have returned only a few times for brief visits, giving me a chance to witness firsthand the remarkable economic, social, and cultural changes that have occurred in the interim. It has been a source of pride for me to see Korea take its place confidently among the advanced nations of the earth. And now, thanks to the generosity of the Korea Foundation, my wife and I are realizing a long-held dream of living once again for an extended period of time in this place that we love. We are truly grateful.