Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all in some part victims of circumstance. Here, I don’t mean victim in any pejorative sense but simply in the sense of being products of our own times, at the mercy of many events beyond our control. Yet within the context of such circumstances, there is also room to fashion our own future. Nothing illustrates this better than my relationship with Korea. My first experience with Korea came in the United States Army. I had joined out of college with an eye on both the known and the unknown. While on the one hand, I was seeking a nebulous idea of adventure, I also joined with the express agreement that I would be sent to the army language school to study Arabic. But after basic training, the army kept its promise to send me to language school, but to my chagrin I was informed upon arriving that the Arabic quota had been met. With a check on a piece of paper I was placed in Korean.
Korean? I knew the name Korea but was not sure I could even properly place it on a map despite my interest in geography. Growing up in small towns in Colorado and Wisconsin, I had hardly ever encountered an Asian and my concept of Asia was almost literally limited to Chinese restaurants. To be honest, it took me several months to adjust to this new reality, and I was helped in this not so much by a newfound curiosity in this strange place, nor even a philosophical resignation, but more by the realization that if I failed out of language school I would be reassigned, in those deceptively innocuous words, “according to the needs of the Army.” From watching others less fortunate fall to the wayside during our ten months of language training I knew those “needs” often meant infantry or cook.
The real change in my thinking came with my graduation and subsequent assignment to Korea. These were the mid-1990s, and though the period of most intense anti–Americanism had passed, it was true I did encounter some initial coldness from Koreans. In all humility, I think it was only my thirst for adventure that saved me. I knew that the areas surrounding army bases were probably not the most ideal places to seek a real Korea, the Korea that had been there long before the army, or war, or national division. The eternal Korea. So every chance I had I ventured far from base and soon found myself in Gyeongju, Buyeo, Mokpo, in the islands of Dadohae, on the east coast, and in Yeosu and Busan.
It was here that my love of Korea grew up. I fell in love with the food, the mountain scenery, the sometimes temperamental but persevering and kind nature of its people. Upon leaving the army, I had determined that Korea was going to be a part of me from now on. The path that had once been chosen for me had become my own.
For a year after the army I taught English at a middle school on Wando Island. It was here that I encountered the historical memory, and even material remnants, of Jang Bo-go. This introduced me, in a firsthand way, to an ancient Korea that had held a proud and central place in Northeast Asia. After my teaching in 1997, I resolved to enter a master’s program in traditional Korean history at the University of Hawaii, and in 1999 began my doctorate there. Throughout my graduate career, the Korea Foundation proved a constant and supportive companion in my efforts to come to know Korea better. I benefited tremendously from Korea Foundation grants for my master’s degree and then from a Korea Foundation language grant to study at Yonsei University. Now working as the Korea Specialist Librarian at the University of Hawaii, the Korea Foundation is more than ever a source of support, both for my professional career and for the collection I oversee. But I am also happy to know that I have grown from simply a recipient of the support, to someone who channels that support to others. I hope in my own small way that I can repay that support through my own encouragement of Korean Studies.
I have been fortunate to witness remarkable changes in Korea over the last dozen years. I have watched it overcome some formidable challenges with ever renewed confidence. In many ways the nation and people of Korea are to me still enigmas. It is a culture steeped in tradition and history, more aware than any other I have encountered of its own unique past.
But it is also remarkably adaptable to change and has entered the 21st century always eager to transform itself.
I hope to witness many more Koreas emerge in the coming years, all new manifestations of some basic Korean spirit.
This is now a path I consciously choose. And on that journey I have no doubt the Korea Foundation will not be far from my side, ready with its generosity and support.