On an early autumn morning in Southeast Ohio, a Korea RPCV jogs while listening to 가울 편지 on his iphone; he double-checks the lyrics on Google. That same week, in North Carolina, another RPCV leaves her house to get the morning mail. She looks up to a clear blue sky through the barren tree branches. Her eyes begin to moisten as she remembers the “High Sky” autumn days of Korea. Seventeen hundred miles to the west in that same autumn, another Korea RPCV climbs a mountain in Arizona. Looking over the landscape, he recalls his days hiking Soraksan in Gangwando.
Nostalgia on steroids? Or evidence of the transformative experience that Peace Corps Korea has been for the Americans who served there? I’d suggest the latter. Need more proof? How about...
Fifty-five Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), some with accompanying family members, are gathered in the lobby of Seoul's Somerset Palace Hotel on a mid-October Sunday afternoon. Guests of the Korea Foundation for the 8th Revisit Program to Korea, they are about to experience Korea one more time -- for a week full of emotion, reconnection, and remembrance... the lasting impact of the PC experience is in full view.
The Revisit Week
The week began with an evening orientation on Sunday -- reminiscent of the initial meeting the volunteers had experienced decades ago when they first arrived in Korea. if one tried hard enough, it was possible to step back in time and imagine that a new PC group was forming -- perhaps "K-2013." The American staff would be Jon Keeton and Jim Mayer, former KPC directors, and Nancy Kelly and Mary Broude, members of the Friends of Korea (FOK) board. This team would be ready to meet the needs of fifty-five personalities and accompanying family members. And if the American side should falter – the Korean staff, led by Yie-Rim Jeong, from the Korea Foundation, and Sunny Kim, of TN Korea Travel, would be there to save us. In short, our new PC “office” was ably staffed. We’d be okay for our new adventure.
After a fine breakfast buffet at the Somerset -- a daily ritual -- the group boarded busses to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) for presentations on the changes in Korean education and health practices since the 1960s. Led by Professors Ha and Sohn, we learned that the respect accorded teachers in Korea (evidenced by the high ranking of Korean teachers’ salaries in a world-wide study) and the emphasis on engineering education may have been two of the keys to Korea’s dramatic economic development. In health, we learned that the leading causes of death in the 1960s and 70s -- tuberculosis-- had been replaced by cardiovascular diseases in the 21st century. The time passed quickly as we continued asking questions – it was time to get ready for lunch and then on to our next visit: the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).
Tuesday and Wednesdays were reserved for tours in Seoul or site visits to the RPCVs' schools and health clinics. “I remember, I remember” was the operative phrase for these days. Jim Mayer told many of the volunteers that they would likely have an emotional experience during this time and he was right! Although the buildings and staff may have changed, seeing former students and colleagues brought tears to the eyes of many of the RPCVs and their Korean friends. Check out the video (courtesy of the Korea Foundation) at the end of this blog and you'll understand.
Thursday morning's highlight was the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Friends of Korea (FOK) and the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul. The museum highlights post-war Korean history and is a chance for RPCVs to share their intimate experience of Korea with the public. Museum Director, Mr. Kim Wang Sik, expressed his thanks for FOK's willingness to assemble objects for the collection. After the MOU signing and a rooftop lunch --with wonderful views of Seoul, the museum conducted oral interviews of each RPCV – another emotional moment for many. RPCVs who would like to contribute items to the collection should go to the Museum page on the FOK website for information on the process.
Friday morning was a chance for the RPCVs to see firsthand some of the developments in Korea's education and health facilities. Former education volunteers visited the Hanguk Woojin Hakgyo, a school for students with special needs. Health volunteers visited the Korea Foundation for International Healthcare. Both groups were impressed by the facilities and the developments in Korean education and healthcare.
Friday Evening -- Farewell Party
RPCV Reflections on the Revisit
Russ was last in Korea about 40 years ago. The picture to the left features two Ohio State University grads from different generations-- Russ and Kristin Krzic, who was an accompanying family member of another volunteer. Looks like we need an O-H-I-O!
"I served as a volunteer from July 1972 to July 1974 as a tuberculois control worker (K24) in a rural public health center in Cholla Buk Do, Korea. The staff at the health center: the young nurses, the workers and the senior administrators, treated me like family when I worked there as a young man. When I returned in October of 2013, although the personnel had changed and they were housed in a beautiful new health facility, they welcomed me like a "lost son" who had finally returned home." When asked about his career after PC, Russ replied, "I returned to the states after my PC work, I continued working in health and human services and recently retired from Delaware's Division of Public Health after 22 years. Peace Corp was a key part of my growth and development personally and professionally."
On the left, Peggy and her daughter, Jasmin, pose with her PC Korean family during their revisit.
"My overall feeling about the Korea revisit is that of honor and gratitude for the kindness and generosity of the Korean government and for their appreciation for what we did as Peace Corps volunteers. I have never felt so appreciated for work that I have done, and yet I know that I/we did not deserve this level of recognition.
Most of us would agree that we received more than we gave as Peace Corps volunteers in Korea. I was moved by the visit to KOICA and consider this to be the real legacy that Peace Corps may have left in Korea. The heartfelt connection between the two organizations was touching, and I am proud to know that the examples we may have set during our volunteer service 35-40 years ago is being continued by Koreans themselves.
My site visit was a warm, wonderful reconnection with my Korean family, the mother and father now in their late 70's, and the instant feeling of being “family” with them again. I never dreamed that I would see them again, and sit next to them and share food and gifts and memories. There were tears and hugs and “pogoshipoyos” all around! The welcome I received at my school was also warm and meaningful, with open hearts and typical Korean hospitality. My daughter and I were shown around the school and then were taken to a wonderful traditional bulgogi restaurant. We also visited a new park where part of my old school had been moved. I remembered our old school was very traditional in style, but what I didn't know was that part of the school was an ancient Chosun dynasty guest house, which is now part of a national historical monument. What a treat to see this beautiful old building now restored and remembered for its historical significance!
My only other comment is that I would normally not have participated in a trip like this, being bused around in groups, sticking to a rigid schedule and having to be at galas and formal events. But I decided it was important for me to experience Korea again. My last trip in 2000 was more of a culture shock than a revisit, and I am so very glad I did. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget! Thank you to the Korea Foundation and Friends of Korea for the gift of reconnection with my beloved Korean home."
On the left, Audrey at her school during the revisit. A later trek into the mountains led to a serendipitous experience and a new Korean friend.
"The revisit for me was the first time I returned to Korea in 40 years, and it was a wonderful opportunity to see the advances Korea had made in that relatively short time , given the incredible advances in infrastructure, transportation, technology, etc. I was very grateful for the many activities we participated in over the six day program, and was quite touched by the level of gratitude expressed and demonstrated to us by the Koreans. I still feel I received far more from my Peace Corps experience than I gave to Korea.
On the left, Terry reconnecting with a colleague during her PC days.
"To see the many structural and physical changes (road, transport, bridges, new and lovely buildings, art work, gardens and the trees, improved housing and farming techniques, folks just overall looking prosperous, more food and better food available) is so satisfying. People worked SO hard when I was there ('70-72)!!!!!!
Also know these changes have brought about new challenges--care for the elderly, lots of education with no place to go after lots of money spent on education, the changes and challenges in the agricultural community, problems with "faster" and more expensive living costs . . . . . . . . .many still working many long hours for their "keep" . . .
While the outside face has changed dramatically, folks in general have not changed all that much! (hurray!) The first formality, the kindness in general, the curiosity, the social mores and the overall social nature of the people has not changed much that I could see."
Paul and his wife Betty with old colleagues and new friends during his revisit to Incheon, his former site.
"The revisit was wonderful, of course. My feelings of unworthiness did not prevent me from thoroughly enjoying being so well taken care of, the first-class accommodations, flattering receptions, the comraderie of the group, amazing cuisine, and the experiences of culture and information. After trying to imagine the changes for years, finally to see the Seoul and Incheon of today was fascinating. And I’m especially grateful that my wife, Betty, was made part of the group to experience all this along with me.
The serendipitous developments of each day were a special delight. While we knew from Jon Keeton's emails and from the printed schedule that we were in for a great week, wonderful features that had not been detailed for us in advance would continue to materialize. For example, I had visualized the hike along the Seoul fortress wall to be us strung out in a quiet line that a couple of serious college fellows would be pulling along at a brisk pace. How much better to find myself accompanied by two middle school kids, delightful modern and perfect English speakers, as my personal companions for several hours?
The site visit was an emotional experience! The principal of Jemulpo High School emailed me a couple of weeks before the revisit to introduce himself, welcome me, and tell me that he had been a student in the Middle School back when I was teaching there. When I arrived and approached the school door, he came running outside to greet me--alongside a teacher whom I recognized immediately and had liked very much but had never expected to see (he seemed older then, and turned out to now be 87). On the steps we were joined by six former students of mine—now distinguished and successful-looking men of about 60. Inside Betty and I were treated to a reception with flattering speeches and most generous gifts.
I did get to see an English class during the visit, which I had hoped. And while I had hoped to see a little of the nearby city center, Principal Lee gave us a wide-ranging and thoughtfully-planned tour of greater Incheon, old and new, beyond all expectation.
It was satisfying to see what hadn’t changed: the layout of school buildings in the little valley the school occupied, the same dirt playing and assembly field in front of the building, and of course the kindness, graciousness, and generosity of the people. Students in the gym stopped what they were doing and bowed to me when we went in.
But of course in the city that now has one of the planet’s highest-rated international airports and several huge international seaport areas, modernization has transformed pretty much all but some hills into a different world. I chuckled when I realized that much of the Korea I remembered had been relegated to a museum we visited, and that there it was I, and not the much younger docent, who seemed the expert on A-frames, yan-ton (the charcoal blocks burned for heating), tabangs, and honey-bucket men."
Betty also commented "As an accompanying spouse it moved me to be so well received at the visiting site with wonderful gifts to both of us, not just Paul. The site visit included a museum that preserves the lifestyle Paul experienced as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was a slow revelation but very evident that the Koreans are a warm, appreciative people who are giving back through their own Peace Corps and gestures of appreciation"
Paul concludes: "I’m enjoying telling people about the trip and about Korea today. I’m proud to wear my new Jemulpo Alumni Association belt."