Warning- I am having a hard time uploading pictures- I will repost this when I can with pictures.
I have been in Korea for four days and still have yet to get overcome this jetlag…it’s 4am right now, so I figured I would use my time lying awake to catch up on my blog. In only four short days I have learned so much about Korean history, art, culture, and perhaps most importantly, Korean values. Korean society and values are made up of a complex network of beliefs that have shifted over time and, as in many other places around the world, are continuously being challenged by economic and political developments.
The first night we arrived here, we were left to our own devices to go find dinner. We’re staying in the Mapo section of town, that sits just on the outskirts of downtown, central Seoul. A bunch of us ventured into the neighborhood just behind the hotel which is made up of neat little alleyways crammed with restaurants and bars. Eventually, three of us broke off and found our way into a little restaurant that served traditional Korean food while you sat at the floor. Not a word of English was spoken , but we knew to follow the guy to the back of the room, took our shoes off before we stepped up onto the platform where the low-lying tables were and proceeded to order. We had grilled beef with many side dishes, and beer. My first meal in Korea was delicious.
Second day in Korea involved a walking tour of Seoul, where we took a subway to Gyeongbokgung where we were greeted by a giant statue of King Sedong in the middle of an open square. King Sedong was the fourth King of the Joseon Dynasty (Choson) who ruled from 1418 to 1450 and is a hero in Korean history who is credited with creating many things, including the Korean alphabet. In sympathy for the common people in Korea who would not be able to read or write Mandarin, King Sedong decided to create a much simpler version using a basic system of vowels and consanants. He is also credited with the creation of movable type/printing, and associated with many other achievements in science, math, literature, and the military.
From King Sedong’s statue we reached the Gyeongbokgung Palace, which housed Joseon Kings for over 200 years. Inside the palace lies the National Folk Museum which offers the visitor a good insight into Korean cultural history. From there, we walked over to the Blue House (Cheongwadae), which is essentially the ROK’s equivalent of our white house. After walking a little further we found ourselves in an upscale neighborhood with boutique type stores and over-priced resturaunts. A group of us found a nice little restaurant that serves traditional Korean food with a modern flair. I had the Bugolli, which is rice and beef, served with lettuce on the side for you to wrap it up. It was outstanding.
After a jam packed day of touring, we headed back to the hotel where we were to get ready for our welcome banquet. It seemed as if the food would never stop coming and my motto of “try everything”, combined with jet lag and exhaustion was starting to take its toll on me. Still, I managed to muster up enough energy to go out for a while, which proved to be an interesting experience. Just a few blocks away from our hotel, one of the guys in the group had found a little place that looked like you’re typical American bar, the Zuzu Bar. Within in minutes of walking in, Bon Jovi was on and I knew that was a good sign. All was well, and then got better when the disco lights came on, the microphone announcers started spewing out Korean, and everyone in the bar started cheering. We had no idea what was going on, but then the bartender started flipping bottles up in the air, lighting them on fire, and eating the fire…essentially, we were treated to a Korean Cocktail Show. It was an interesting night to say the least.
Our third day involved a brief overview of Korean Education and a visit to the Koyang Foreign Language High School where we had the opportunity to teach a class, take a tour of the school, and talk candidly with the students. I am utterly fascinated with the Korean system of Education, but I will try to briefly summarize what I learned:
– Koreans contribute 82 % of their GDP to education
– As in many other Asian nations, the education system is very competitive in Korea and involves a high-stakes test that will determine the university you will attend, which in turn, will determine the jobs that will be available to you for the remainder of your life.
– The goal of all Korean students is to earn acceptance into one of the three main universities; S.K.Y (Seol, ????) Even acceptance into an American Ivy League school is not considered to be as good.
– The high stakes entrance exam has become a central part of Korean society, with parents praying outside while their children take the test, people cheering for students as a they walk in, planes are not allowed to fly during those days, and in some extreme cases, girls will take pills in an effort to prevent having their period on that day. As one might expect, families spend a good deal of money on private tutors for these exams and the suicide rate among teenagers is rising in Korea. In fact, the major reason given in many suicide notes left by teenagesrs is a drop in their test scores. The test has also been known to affect Korean couples who report that one of the biggest sources of problems within a marriage is if their child has low test scores because if your child can’t get into one of the big 3 universities, they will be stigmatized for life.
– Not surprisingly the students I got a chance to spend the day with were very critical about the amount of pressure they felt to perform well and study for their exams. They go to school from 7am to 11pm and seemed very envious of the “freedom” that American students have. These students were in 9th grade.
Visiting the school was an amazing experience where I was able to teach the kids a lesson on US Geography and chat with the two girls assigned as my personal guides for a brief period after. I love visiting schools in other countries, it is always such a great way of meeting young people and learning more about their society as they usually are very candid with their answer
That night, a few of us decided to head to the Hongik University section of the city which is made up of a series of pedestrian roads and alleyways jammed packed with resturaunts, bars, and shops catering to young people. We stopped at a little place called noodle box for dinner then found our way to Korean Praha- a castle like bar with a Prague theme. Afterwards, Sam’s friend who lives here told him about a band that was playing, next thing I know we’re in an upstairs bar about the size of my garage with a kick-ass, Korean, AC-DC cover band performing as if they were in front of crowd of 60,000 at giants stadium. It was pretty hilarious and fun. After another bar and missing the last subway, we made our way safely back to the hotel.
Yesterday was our last day in Seoul for now, we are heading out this morning on a 5 day field trip. The day was mostly filled with lectures and we finally met our lead professor, Dr. Mark Peterson who is very personable, smart, candid, and funny. I am going to enjoy learning from him for the remainder of the trip. Our second lecture focused on Korean society and Democratization. What many people don’t know is that political freedom in South Korea is relatively new, and in many ways still transforming. As recently as the 1980s, South Koreans were under the oppressive regime of a military dictator who cracked down on protestors and labor union s. The movement for democracy really stemmed out of the 1987 movement where there was overwhelming support among the people of Korea for a move towards democracy. With democratization and economic development however, there has been a rapid increase in socio-economic inequality and a disintegration of the middle class. As a result, a large number of Koreans are disenchanted with the democratic government’s ability to deal with these inequalities and help people, and thus we now see what is termed “authoritarian nostalgia”- where people look back fondly to the dictatorial rule they experienced in the 70s and 80s.
After and interesting lunch in the university’s cafeteria and two more lectures; one on Korean Art and one on Korean Cinema, we visited the National Museum of Korea. The Museum houses many of Korea’s national treasures and has an impressive Buddhist exhibition on the third floor. From there we went to the cute little neighborhood of Insadong where, after getting lost with a few others, we were treated to a vegetarian dinner and a traditional Korean Dance performance in a temple restaurant called Sanchon. Today we are off to visit some temples in the South, and will be back in Seoul on Thursday for more lectures and a visit to the DMZ zone. For now though, I am excited to check out the countryside.