Always Present

Everyday, I take a 30 minute bus ride from my small town, Jeongok, north to an even smaller town called Daegwang.  The ride is pleasant enough and barring any delay in the schedule, the buses don’t get to packed with people.  The area is very rural, and you’ll find garden plots everywhere.  Seriously everywhere.  Even in my small town, which is the “most developed” town in the area (the quotes are from my co-teacher).  Most of the 30 minutes is spent looking at giant fields of rice, barns and the forested mountains that surround us.

It is a very beautiful place and only gets more beautiful with each changing season (so far anyway).  Late summer had stretches of the road lined with flowers, autumn has the changing leaves.  And with so many trees, it really is a beautiful place.

There are some constants with all this beauty.  Like the fact that at times it feels like my town is populated solely by teenage school girls and 70 year old women.  Another, the constant coming and going of Korean soldiers.  I was complaining (shocker) to a friend the other day that while it is lonely in my town (I’m ok with that) it can be unbearable on the weekends because my town is flooded with soldiers and their girlfriends.  No one is more aware of the importance of intimacy, as someone who isn’t getting any of it.

Half-joking aside, the soldiers fascinate me in other ways.  Speaking as an American, our soldiers are pretty visible  throughout the world and in our hometowns.  I’ve seen a lot of military types and equipment.  The mere presence of the military isn’t the interesting thing, instead what keeps me interested is a feeling.  As a civilian, it is one thing to see a soldier; it is another to see a group of them emerge from the forest in full battle-gear, faces painted.  It’s one thing to see the military, even a tank, in a parade; it is completely another thing to see an actual military convoy of fifteen tanks and artillery.  The feeling is very different.  There is a seriousness to it, an awareness, a reminder that is more than hopefulness or pride.

I think the daily reminder of the military presence that gets me the most is one I hear at my school everyday.  My school is located about half a mile from an army camp where they do rifle practice.  Everyday around 2pm I hear the familiar “ting” of rifle fire.  Again, it’s one thing to go out with your Gun-enthusiast uncle and shoot a large caliber weapon, it is another to hear soldiers practicing.  But it’s not just the military aspect.  It’s something else.  I guess it’s the image that it brings to mind.  Back in America, soldiers doing rifle practice may bring to mind a number of things to any given person, I don’t really know.  But here, a Korean soldier shooting a target? Well that brings to mind the ever-present conflict just a few miles up the road.  It might remind you of contingency plans, of the past, perhaps the future.

One day, I got off the bus later in the evening and the first thing I saw was two soldiers on the sidewalk.  Normal.  They had their full gear on, helmets strapped on and, abnormally, they had their rifles in their hands.  I froze, but only for a moment.  I suppose I had for one second thought something was wrong.  My naivete made me fearful.  No one else had stopped, no one seemed to be paying attention to the two soldiers.  They weren’t doing anything in particular that would cause alarm.  No, it was just a feeling.  And maybe it passes.

video – Rifle practice outside school

I hope so.  I hope for the sake of all these good people that they don’t feel that tinge of fear when confronted with the ever-present military.  No one deserves to live with such a feeling their whole lives.  Living with the conflict itself is enough.  The always present feeling, I hope it fades for them.

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2 thoughts on “Always Present

  1. That makes me fearful for you. But also it made me tear up a bit because I really hadn’t thought about living like that and it makes me sad for the kids. Also, don’t plan on getting any while you are there because you are a scary foreigner. Sorry.

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  2. Thanks for your post. I married a Korean from Jeonju in 1978 and taught English for a while then and in the 1980s. As I am a Kiwi, I had to try to sound American, and the resultant stilted accent never left me, so that now, fellow Kiwis usually ask where I’m from as they think I’m a foreigner. Your post reminded me of when I was teaching at Ajou University in Suweon in 1984. One day while I was walking along the earthen dike between the paddy fields near the university, two military helicopters appeared over a small hill right in front of us. There was no sound until they just appeared – we would have been sitting ducks. Shades of Apocalypse Now. Seoul in 1978 still had the curfew from midnight to 4am and almost no private cars, but good memories….

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