Old enough to be friends

Dateline: Seoul, South Korea

October, 2011

In these luminous days of high skies and fat horses, as Koreans describe their crisp autumn season, I feel I have come home—to a place I hardly recognize.

Forty-one years ago I left Korea, after working here for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English at a women’s college. Recently as I stood in Gwanghwamun Plaza, gawking at the skyscrapers soaring above the renovated heart of this ancient Joseon capital, the techno-bling of the new century looked more like Abu Dhabi than the Seoul I recall. The gazillions of “hand phones” I saw on sidewalks and in subways were a far cry from the days when making a call home to the U.S. required a long bus ride from my campus to the downtown post office, where I had to reserve an overseas line a week in advance.

But this is 2011, and along for the ride were my wife and my 28-year-old son. We came to the Land of Morning Calm, along with 81 other former volunteers and their families, at the invitation of the Korean government, hosted by the Korea Foundation. We all paid our own airfare, but we were feted at a four-star hotel, with nightly banquets.

Ours was the sixth Peace Corps group to return for what is being called a “revisit.” All of us volunteered in health and education programs from 1966 to 1981, and the revisits are a unique thank-you: Korea is the only one of 139 nations that have hosted Peace Corps to invite volunteers back. In this golden anniversary year of the corps’ 1961 founding, Korea’s appreciation suggests that one U.S. foreign policy initiative has worked. 

On this revisit we had tea at the residence of U.S. Ambassador—and former Peace Corps volunteer—Kathleen Stephens. We met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and with youth.

But the highlight, for me, was returning to the school where I taught—which I no longer recognize. Seoul Women’s College, which enrolled several hundred students in 1969, is now Seoul Women’s University, with a student body of 8,000.

In 1969, less than a year after graduating from college myself, I was teaching conversational English at SWC. Not only was I young, inexperienced and terrified of speaking in public, but English was an incredibly difficult language to learn. Baffled by the weird grammar and idioms of my native tongue (how often is “once in a blue moon”?), we tossed out the textbook and attempted to demystify English by chatting about current events and favorite Korean fables. Neil Armstrong’s 1969 landing on the moon? Not half as captivating as the Korean tale of the rabbit who’s lived up there, pounding rice under a laurel tree, for centuries. 

By tradition in Korea, college classmates gather every month at a designated time, day and cafĂ© to keep up with one another’s lives. Last month I had the opportunity to reconnect with five former students, after a 41-year gap. The girls I remember as freshmen are now grandmothers in their 60s, and for a few hesitant moments I wondered what we would find to talk about.

I needn’t have worried. Shin Young-Sook got right to the point. “How old are you now?” she wanted to know.

“Just one year older than you.”

“Good,” she said. “We don’t have to be student and teacher anymore. We’re old enough to be friends.” 

It was good to be back. In my adopted homeland.



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