Jumping In: The Duality of Korea
Since most of what I knew about Korea came from the TV show MASH, I had a lot to learn.
Though I did think that Radar fashioning a tracheotomy from a ball point pen was damned cool, I also recognized that these characters I loved, and thought hilarious, were in fact in a war zone – and the feeling I came away with each Tuesday night was that Korea was a dangerous and sad place. I can’t say that the show is the reason, but when my husband and I talked of teaching abroad somewhere I was generally enthusiastic, save for one stern caveat: anywhere but Asia. The Far East just seemed so…well, dangerous and sad.
Living and teaching in Asia has been an overwhelming prospect, I can’t lie. It’s been a steep and abbreviated learning curve –4 months from first consideration to signing on the dotted line. Since we’re getting on a plane 5 weeks from today, it’s gone from new idea to happening in the blink of an eye. Voraciously, I consume all the information I can, both historic and current, to continue to wrap my head around living 7,000 miles from the only home I have ever known, in a seaside Maine town with 7,000 residents, to a city of 2.5 million people.
Korea possesses a heartbreaking duality: it has an ancient, multifaceted culture, with one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and one of the most violent histories of any country on earth. It’s a country still operating on traditional values and deeply rooted in complicated and brutal history. It is clear there is unfaltering respect given to the past, yet Korea also seeks to grow, to flourish and to compete and to thrive on the world scene.
As I begin my new research, it becomes abundantly clear that in order to truly understand Korea, in all its beautiful and violent past, one must actually be Korean (a phenomenon my new friend Jinwoo Chun calls “Koreanism” or “just Korean” meaning, no one else could possibly discern the paradox of being simultaneously sad and triumphant.) Nothing can compare to immersion, from childhood, in Korea’s rich traditions, hearing stories that have been passed down through centuries, remembering and honoring all that has been sacrificed. It is a perspective unique to these warm, hardworking, patriotic people. I think even if I lived in Korea the rest of my life I couldn’t quite grasp the perplexities. The government and economy have been shattered and rebuilt many times… Korea is not unlike a beautiful phoenix continually rising from the ashes.
Though it’s an ancient culture, the surge of modernization of South Korea is occurring at an astounding rate. This is how my family and I have come to consider living there. My husband is most interested in the ancient things, me – the fact that there are top rated hospitals and four American military bases…should we need one. More duality can be seen within the city itself, which offers both original Buddhist temples scattered in its mountainous terrain, and the Gap in the fashion district; a community that lives as if it were 600 AD and a world renowned baseball team; museums that house indigenous relics and the “Loving Hut”, a vegan chain restaurant, which is NOT to be confused with the “Love Hotels” which can be rented by the hour! It’s an oxymoronic culture– and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I find it brilliant that South Korea has found ways to keep its heritage intact and expand its economy and government in ways that make sense and are uncompromising.
One new addition to the city is our school -Daegu International School, which boasts a modern campus, 40 minutes from Daegu center and a mere 10 minutes from the airport. It’s a city haven with its lush lawns and surrounding trees, stunning athletic fields and beautiful lake tucked out behind the academic buildings. We have chosen to live in the dorm suites where we’ll live and breathe campus life. It we wanted, we could stay on campus, converse in English and never interact with the locals, get a chance to speak Korean, attend any traditional festivals or even eat kimch’i, for that matter. I appreciate this option, as it does provide me with a modicum of comfort (geez, what if I’m allergic!?) But that’s not our intention at all.
I may not know a droplet of information in the sea that is South Korea, but I intend to learn. I’m jumping in bellyflop style. I’m sure I’ll attract some stares and make more than my share of mistakes. After all, the writers of MASH took much creative liberty when writing scripts. I won’t lie and say I’m unafraid, but my time in Korea will be over before I know it. Until then, I intend to experience Korea fully –and by the way, from what I have read and heard, we couldn’t have chosen a friendlier place to try out our expatriate shoes. So here goes. Korea get ready. Here we come.
Our campus at Daegu International School. Daegu, South Korea