Whenever people heard I was about to leave the states to teach in Korea, they would ask me one of three questions: “North Korea or South?,” “Do you know any Korean?,” and, “Why Korea?”. While the answers to the first two questions were easy (a polite laugh for the first, a confiding “noooo” for the second), the third answer took a little more thinking. Yes, I wanted to travel. Yes, I’d like to pay off those student loans. But it takes more than empty luggage and a hefty monthly payment to send somebody to the other side of the planet.
For me, it took a touch of mystery.
I moved my life to South Korea because I wanted to discover a place of which I was completely ignorant. I wanted to be uncomfortable, a foreigner, a waygook. I wanted to be part of a society thousands of years distant from my own ideas, to shape those whimsical patterns on the street signs into letters and words, to develop a taste for kimchi.
I wanted to see things I’d never seen before.
I’ve been in Korea for a week now, and I’ve just begun to uncover the vastness of all I have yet to learn. I’m smack dab in the most exciting place on the planet: a state of temporary ignorance.
The orientation training for guest English teachers takes place at Daejin University, a hilly campus about an hour outside of Seoul. Step outside, and the humidity envelops you. There’s a pulse to the heat, a whir, the trees humming with cicadas. Below float the largest butterflies I’ve ever seen. The campus rests between hills laced with hiking trails, and across from the dorm a temple marks time with a gong. All of this on a campus with classrooms, dorms, and a cafeteria eerily reminiscent of my own college days. It was almost like I had moved halfway across the world to find myself back amid the hills of Westmont College, Santa Barbara.
That’s why I was so excited to hear that our orientation would include a trip into Seoul, the largest city of Korea with a population of about 24 million and the nation’s capital for over 600 years. Armed with a few letters of the Korean alphabet and a single greeting, I boarded a bus with my fellow teachers-to-be and headed into Seoul.
The first thing I noticed was the shape of the land. The horizon was not flat, but rather rose into a number of hills with outcroppings of pale orange stone. The suburbs, as we neared the city, took the form of high-rises above impressively intact forest. As we entered Seoul smaller building and narrow streets filled in the gaps between high-rises, but through the cracks between buildings I could always glimpse the outline of a low mountain.
I almost didn’t notice when the bus stopped, so engrossed was I in deciphering the script on Korean storefronts and street signs. Our first stop was the Korea House, a theater and restaurant next door to the Namsangol Hanok Village. Our day in Seoul began with a demonstration of traditional Korean music and dance. Five woman played stationary drums in a performance that mingled percussion with dance, then a man in red played a solo on a bamboo flute. Next, the women performed a fan dance in bright skirts that billowed into bells when they spun. The show ended with a traditional farmer’s dance in which four men played drums with ribbon sticks attached to their caps.
Next, we wandered next door to Namasangol Hanok Village, a cultural center consisting of several historical houses that had been re-located to form a small village. I enjoyed reading about the history of these houses, many of which had been decorated to call to mind the daily life of their inhabitants. The village also hosted a few craftsmen, and stations throughout gave visitors the opportunity to play historic games and try on traditional clothing. At the top of the park sat a giant time capsule buried in honor of Seoul’s 600th anniversary as capital of Korea. The village was a great crash-course on the daily life of 19th century Koreans, although an hour amid the houses exhausted most of the information.
Our wanderings had also exhausted much of our energy, so we headed back to the Korea house for a meal of bibimbap. This was my first sit-down Korean meal, and I was amazed at the diversity of dishes. The main dish, bibimbap, was a carefully arranged assortment of vegetables and meat onto which you dropped a bowl of rice and some spicy bean paste, then mixed them all up into a spicy assortment. Along with the main dish came some kimchi, two soups, glass noodles, candied peanuts, and dessert of a small pastry and fruit. I was pleasantly surprised how many of the dishes I liked, especially those involving the bean paste (whose name I have yet to learn).
Our next stop was Gyeongbokgoong, the royal palace of Seoul. This was the government seat of the Korean monarchy, a collection of elaborately carved buildings dating back to the 14th century. Although partially razed during Japanese occupation in the 40s, Gyeongbokgoong has been re-built in recent years and now calls to mind the elegance of the Korean monarchy. Each building was impressively carved, with small statues on the corners of each roof that denoted the importance of the official who lived there. We walked through the courtyard where ancient kings were crowned, peered into the dwelling places of the most powerful men in Korean history. My favorite buildings were the water palace, built above a small lake with the mountains behind, and the queen’s dwelling, which still conveyed an air of graceful serenity.
The most striking aspect of Gyeongbokgoong, though, came from behind the gates. The palace isn’t set aside from the bustle of Seoul; rather, it is a part of the city. From inside the palace I looked over the sloped rooftops of palaces and courtyards built before Chaucer had learned to walk, and at their edge the boxed skyline of a city that barely existed 60 years ago. The juxtaposition was startlingly permeable. There was no barrier between present and past. The Koreans taking pictures of the strange buildings and the stranger foreigners were the same people whose ancestors once walked these very courtyards. Coming from a country where any history before 1492 comes with a pang of guilty nostalgia, it was fascinating to walk in a place where a culture had pressed forward for thousands of years between the same mountains. Koreans have gone through some truly unimaginable struggles in the past 100 years, but they have managed to keep their history strong throughout all those difficulties. Their skyscrapers are strongest for the temples in their shadow.
To discover more about the interaction between past and present, we left Gyeonbokgoong and walked across the street to the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History. The museum was thoughtfully designed and boasted three exhibitions: one focused on the events leading up to the Korean republic, one on the installment of democracy in Korea, and the last on the dynamic history of that republic. Although I didn’t have time to explore the entire museum, I appreciated learning more about Korea’s historical context. I also enjoyed a trip up to the 8th floor of the museum, where I gained a stunning aerial view of Gyeonbokgoong and the surrounding city streets.
Eventually, though, we had to leave Seoul. We drove back to Daejin University amid the shopfront signs that I was just beginning to read, through the country that I am just beginning to discover.