High Upon A Mountain Top

For the first week and a half of my time here in beautiful South Korea, I have been pretty well fenced in my little town of Jeongok.  Besides taking the bus 30 minutes to my school every day, I don’t really get out too much during the week.  Most everyone I talk to expresses a least a touch of concern about living in such a rural area of Korea (a choice I overtly made).  From the very beginning, my job placement agent was concerned with making sure I lived somewhere “I wouldn’t be bored”.  (Though… I am wondering what the difference would be between living in Jeongok <30 minutes from work> and Yeoncheon <15 minutes from work>).  One of the first things my ESL co-teacher expressed to me was his concern about being bored because I didn’t have internet or TV in my little apartment.  I don’t know if it’s simply because I am American and everyone thinks I expect the finest things in life (or, perhaps the inverse, and everyone in Korea expects to have all finest things and no one can imagine living without internet or TV for a few weeks), but either way, it seems that people have a different semantic prototype for ‘bored’ than I do.

Moving on.  Luckily, I do have some friends who live in South Korea and my second weekend they wanted to do something in the Big City, Seoul.  After I figured out the subway, it really isn’t that big of a deal heading down to Seoul, and it’s not all that expensive.  Though, because of some confusion as to where exactly it is I live, my friends had a hard time figuring out a way for me to make it down to Seoul and due to some unexpected communication failures (meaning, failures with the devices themselves) I ended up hopping on the subway only tentatively knowing where I was going and hoping that at some point, someone would give me a call and we would figure it out.

I decided to go to a stop called, “Seoul Station”, mistakenly thinking it would be cool place to be.  Don’t get me wrong, anything new is cool and there was a cool park around there, but what Seoul Station really is, is a connecting Imagestation.  It connects the metro with the other high-speed trains.  The station itself is huge and from there, you can pretty much go anywhere in South Korea in about 2 hours.  Pretty convenient.  Though, after a few walk-throughs, not very interesting.  I was still waiting for a phone call, so I sat down by a Baskin Robins and rested for a moment.  That moment turned into an hour and after a while, I started to get concerned that this communication failure might be more serious.

After waiting a little longer, I finally decided to go walk around the area near the station.  It quickly became the same kind of thing I see around my house every day.  Korean restaurant, Korean restaurant, pool hall, Korean restaurant, Lan house, Korean restaurant.  Time for a new street.  I crossed over and started walking perpendicular to my previous line and saw a sign for a park nearby.  After about 20 minutes of being painfully reminded of walking around downtown Porto Alegre, I finally found the park.  Which also required that I walk, even more steeply, up another two hundred yards or so.  When I got to the top, I was greeted pleasantly by grass, something I hadn’t seen in a while.  However, the park itself was a little bit of a disappointment.  The trees didn’t provide much shade and, you know, as a tourist.. seen one grass field and you’ve seen them all.

The more I walked around (unwillingly of course, I was tired by this point) the more interesting the park was.  There were some statues of important people in Korean history, mostly late 19th century, and WWII era people.  There was a big wall that circled around a part of the park.  It was, apparently, the outer wall for the city that Seoul now sits upon, during the Joseon Dynasty.  Kind of cool.

At this point I was a little worried.  I had walked around the whole park and was a little concerned about what I was going to do with the rest of my time.  Walk back down to the station? Continue walking down another street?  I was a little worried about getting lost, I was close enough to the train station that I thought I could find my way back easily enough at that point, but I wasn’t sure I could keep track for too much longer.  It was then that I saw a sign for a library.  Well, hey, I love libraries!  I started up the path.

The path did not take me to a library.  I’m not really sure where it took me to best honest.  There were a couple of buildings and a parking lot, but nothing looked like a library and I didn’t really see anyone going in or out of any of the buildings (so.. kind of like a library).  But, once I was up in this little parking lot, I could see further up where the path lead to a water fountain! Also, the amount of people started to increase quite a bit.  I walked in that direction.  The path winded around the water fountain and continued up to a restroom.  After some standing around, I noticed that the stairs that I thought just led to the second floor of the building the restrooms were in, actually kept going up.  Now we are talking!

I started up the path and it was then that I realized I had found the key attraction.  People were walking up and down the path and at one point, a tram filled with people wooshed by me, further up and further in!  The path way was steep at some points, but easy enough to climb.  It was completely paved in stone, with steps to help you climb.  Getting to the top wasn’t too difficult.  I knew I was close when I hit the tram station.  A lot more people coming and going, and also.. people were selling food and water.  Keep climbing.  On the very top of Namsam Park, there is a huge pavillon where all sorts of things go on.  When I got to the top, I sat down and just watched the people for a moment.  Hundreds of people coming and going, looking over the edge at the city below.  Just finishing up was a performance by some actors.  Their dress suggested they were doing a period piece from what I’ll assume is the Joseon era (considering the wall in the park below).  When I got there, they had just finished and were sweeping up the area with some very old-fashioned looking brooms.

Because this particular hill is pretty much the center of Seoul, they put a TV tower on top of it.  And luckily for everyone, they put an observation deck in that tower.  I contemplated just going back down, but I realized (once again) that I actually had no where to go, and I was still alone, may as well go up the tower, I’ll probably never go there again.  It’s a cool ten Korean won to get access to the tower which is.. I don’t know.. probably an ok amount to charge.  I kind of feel like if you hiked all the way up, you ought to be able to get in for free, but.. I won’t complain.  The view from the tower is pretty similar to any view you’ve ever had from a very high point in a big city.  (here’s some pictures if that is not your experience).  The city truly is gigantic.  From the tower, you are very clearly higher than anything nearby, but even so, at some points the horizon is still created by sky-scrappers.  I’ve never seen anything like that before.  It kind of looked like a really pixelated mountain far off in the distance.

I made a few rounds around the observation deck and then headed out.  I wasn’t interested in any trinkets or memorabilia, photos are well enough.  I meandered for a few minutes more through the crowds of tourists, Korean and foreigner alike, and finally headed back down the trail.  Back through the water fountain, through the park and retraced my steps back to the train station.  And at that point, I was exactly where I was 3 hours earlier.  It was getting close to 5:30pm, and I figured if my friend hadn’t called by then, it wasn’t going to happen that day.  My first reaction was annoyance, but then I realized they might have had some trouble, or gotten hurt, or something else equally undesirable, and that I would withhold judgment until I knew better.  I sat down once again at Baskin Robins (I had wifi access at that spot that only worked for the Facebook application on my Iphone) and waited for another few minutes.  Finally, I got up and boarded the train heading for Soyosan Station.

The train ride back was more packed, but equally pleasant.  A nice young couple started a conversation with me.  They were both middle school teachers, the woman happened to be her schools English teacher.  The man and I talked, I think he appreciated the opportunity to practice some English, and I am more than happy to help, but I need to figure out how to also practice Korean in those situations.  We talked about our personal situations and at the end, exchanged phone numbers.  I got two contacts without even trying (Eat that missionaries!)  It’ll be nice to have some friends from around the area I live.

I tried to gauge my feelings about the day and came up with, “not too bad for a first trip solo”.  Next time, I’ll keep a secondary idea in mind, in case my primary plans fall apart again.  The guys at Mok Dong studios are waiting for me to show up and watch some pro-league Starcraft one of these days!

Finding Chwulsin

I am discovering that this first post is the hardest.  I already have a back log of posts, ready for posting (but we will wait for now), but I’ve re-written this particular post three or four times.  And within the hardest entry, is the hardest paragraph.  That would be this one.  I want to explain here where I want this blog to go, but I find that maybe I don’t know myself.  Nevertheless, broadly speaking this blog will chronicle my experience as a Second-language Educator in the South Korean public education system.  The interpretation of “experience” is pretty open.

To start this whole thing off, I want to address a core or fundamental idea about why I am here, doing this.  Lay out my thesis.  I will probably have a much better idea of what I am doing here, once it is all over.  Hindsight has tremendous power.  Writing out my best guess now and then comparing as we go along might be fun too.

As I have been reading and preparing myself to really dive in and learn Korean, I have come across some interesting linguistic and cultural ideas that are expressed in the language.  One of these ideas is briefly discussed in The Korean Language: Structure, Use and Context by Jae Jung Song; it is the idea of Chwulsin.  In a phrase, chwulsin is your background, your origin, where you come from, but also something more; and it is very important in Korean culture.  When I read about it in the opening chapter of Jae Jung Song’s book, I was immediately interested in learning further about this idea.   It is a shame that it is not a common topic of discussion, at least in English writing on Korean language and culture, and I could not find any other sources to add to my understanding.  I suppose I’ll get the hands-on education while I am here.

As I understand Jae Jung Song, chwulsin, as an idea, comes from the Confucianism teaching that society’s organization needs to be based on organization found in nature (as Confucianism sees it).  To quote a passage:

In a society organized in this way, social relationships cannot but be rigid and fixed.  It is assumed that people are not (created) equal, just as things in nature are not.  Social harmony, it is maintained in Confucianism, can be achieved by stable social relationships.  Knowing one’s place in social groupings is, therefore, crucial for social harmony and stability (pg 10).

I don’t want to pretend to know the nuances of such a philosophy.  From what I’ve seen so far in social relationships is that it’s often not about a person but their station.  For example, the first time I saw a police officer with my Korean co-teacher we politely addressed the officer and bowed.  So far, not so different from America, I wouldn’t bow to a cop; but of course I would give them a certain amount of respect that comes simply from their station as a police officer.  That may evidence itself in a simple head-nod, a hello, a wave or at most, a handshake.  I could also show respect by staying out their way.  Next, in the same building we saw the police officer (a bank) we ran into the “chairman of the bank”.  I don’t know if that’s what we call them in America, but he was just the highest ranking official for that specific location.  When my co-teacher greeted him (like he knew him?) and then bowed (as if this guy had social power over him), I was a little surprised and even though I mimicked my friend, I found it strange that I should bow to the guy who runs a bank?  But like they say, when in Rome…

The idea within chwulsin that I find even more interesting than how one operates social relations, is how your “rigid and fixed” social status affects your life, and how one can make that rigidity soften and become fluid (as Koreans do; (pg 10) and how a Korean comes to understand their identity in the context of their family status, education, marriage, etc,.  While a person may be born into a lower class, a family can, and often does, work hard to give the children the opportunity to get a better education and attend a better university, so that while their social class may be considered “bad” chwulsin, being a college graduate from a prestigious university can help you out.  Perhaps you’ve met a Korean who told you about spending around eight hours a day in school and then went to tutoring institutions.  It’s a pretty important part of your chwulsin.

In all honesty, this is not so different from the United States and our western culture.  We just pretend that we don’t live in such a culture that has well-defined social classes, or that, given their existence, we can move up and down those social scales based on our individual hard work and effort.  But, research in anthropology suggests that Americans are more likely to marry within their social class (referred to as ‘Caste Endogamy’) than other socio-economically similar societies.  I’m not exactly well-versed in either the western or eastern ideas and philosophies that might give more insight, I guess my point is, as Jon Stewart recently said in an interview with Mormon historian Joanna Brooks, “We’re all the same shit-heads at heart”.

I write as if I actually know what it is I am talking about.  I am neither an expert in anthropology broadly or eastern cultures specifically.  I certainly am no philosopher in the tradition of Confucianism.  That’s part of what this is all about.  Describing where I am at and correcting the course. Feel free to help me there.  Moving on.

Upon considering his place in the cosmos, Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes once proclaimed, “Thousands of

I *am* the end result of history

generations lived and died to produce my exact, specific parents, whose reason for being, obviously, was to produce me”.  My insight, or the thing I want to delve into further with this blog, that this whole idea of chwulsin started, is: How do I view my origin as seen through the experiences of living in Korea? And, beyond that, how do I identify (if at all) with that story?  I know my origin/cultural story; as a Mormon, my mother raised me on genealogy and in church I heard countless stories about my pioneer heritage.  Like most young people, my ancestors didn’t exactly enthrall me and listening to my mother explain (verbally) how I am related to old so-and-so could be quite painful.  I think I understand that story.  But is it too insular?  Am I missing something obvious by not taking into account at least another portion of the 99% of non-utah, non-mormons?  What can they tell me, about me, that I already knew, but didn’t know that I knew? Sounds contrived and convoluted, but I think the “answers” to the meaningful question hiding behind the words, are probably simple. Occam’s Razor, or some such.  Hopefully I wander into some of those.

If such questions bore you, or irritate you, this blog will probably bore and irritate you just a little.  No fears however! I will also write about other equally boring subjects, like ESL education, lesson plans, teaching techniques and, from time to time, a travel log.  I know people like pictures.