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Archive for October, 2012

S. Korea, 10-12


The 12-hour flight was made more bearable by exercising in back of the plane with my resistance band, a wonderful travel companion. Also get exercise from window seat to aisle by standing on my seat and walking over the armrests and hoping down so the guys didn’t have to get up. One of my seatmates was a soldier in Korea. His life is so regimented with schedules and how to behave, but I guess it provides security for those who like it. I asked him about women in combat and he said the argument against it is that men would be protective and thus hinder their performance. I said there are strong women and weak men so it makes more sense to make individual decisions as the Israelis do. The flight only cost $100 because I buy everything with my travel credit card, a dollar equals a mile. I’ve had almost free flights to Belize, Tanzania, Bali, etc. recommend it.

Seoul is much more relaxed and less crowded than Tokyo where I’ve often had to wait over an hour in customs. Here a few minutes, no line to exchange money and buy a $9 bus ticket for the 50 minute ride to Seoul and the YMCA where I’m staying. I saw lots of grey high-rise apartment buildings; much of Seoul is fairly new because of destruction caused by the Korean War that began with invasion by the North in 1948, leveling Seoul again in 1950, and other earlier invasions. Like other big cities, you see McDonalds and Starbucks, posters for Western performers—Elton John while I was here.  The city was leveled in the early 20th century. The location has left Korea vulnerable to invasion from Japan (their latest conquest was their rule from 1910 to 1945), China, the Mongols, with Russian influence in North Korea and the US in the south. Buddhism was brought from China and became the state religion in the 4th century. Dictator Park governed for 18 years, until he was assassinated in 1979. He industrialized Korea transforming it from a poor country dependent on foreign aid, as demonstrated to the world in the 1988 summer Olympic Games. Korea became a multi-party democracy in 1987. Park’s daughter is running for president this year, very conservative.

The Y room is small but has a refrig, water, yfi, bathroom, free breakfast. After arriving, I walked to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the oldest in Korea, built in 1395 but destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. Luckily a traditional Korean arts festival was going on at the place, with dance, drumming, singing, and demonstrations of crafts like knot tying. The palace has many buildings, one lovely one surrounded by water on two sides .It was a great place to people watch, happy to see how gender roles have changed so much since my youth internationally, with dads carrying babies. People were dressed casually in jeans.  I had traditional Korean dinner after mimicking no cow (moo) or pig (oink) but fish (swimming). The fish is served with head and eyes attached, as in Japan. The food is spiced with red peppers, a bowl of rice and small plates of spicy pickled cabbage and other vegetables. Breakfast at the Y was similar, minus the fish.

I walked all day the next day after hearing half of the disappointing presidental debate on CNN, not a good strategy to not go after Romney. I headed for Chang Deok Gung Place built in 1405, destroyed by the Japanese in the 1500s, and rebuilt later. Between the two palaces is Bukchon Hanok village with some of the few traditional houses with tiled roofs, sprinkled with lots of coffee shops and clothing boutiques.

I passed a private girls’ middle school called Duksung where I was able to talk with two English teachers and some of their students. The students weren’t in class because of exams, loud and boisterous, more outgoing than Japanese students I observed. They talked about the “heat” on them to study for the college entrance exams, as in other Asian countries. The exams are three to four days; students have some choice of subjects drawn from Korean, English, history, math and science. The impact of focus on passing exams is criticized for diminishing creativity, so the government allows some universities to include other admission criteria such a volunteering or awards, and interviews. Miss Lim said this creates additional pressure on students to study to ace the interview. The girls said they’re at school until 8 PM except Wednesdays taking extra courses. Graduating from a good university is necessary to get a good job in a recession, creating a lot of pressure on students.  Suicide is resorted to by some who don’t do well on the 3 or 4-day exams. I asked how the girls cope with the pressure and they said talking with their friends and music.  College is where students can relax and have fun. Students get support from homeroom teachers who spend several hours a day working with students. Miss Lim said she tries to make learning English fun as the girls get bored with grammar, using film and music. Vocational schools are available for students who don’t get into university. One of the teachers said she thinks teens today are more independent and less obedient than her generation. Schools still expect conformity by requiring uniforms and prohibiting nail polish, short skirts, or dyed hair. The government helps fund private schools so teacher Miss Lim said girls from poor families are able to attend her school. The girls and teachers agreed that girls are better students because they’re more mature. Teachers used to be able to use corporal punishment to insure discipline, but now have to find different tactics. She sends discipline problems to older stricter teachers to get in line.

I asked how the girls are different from their parents’ generation. A middle-aged t teacher said they feel freer to have their own opinions, as about how they are taught, while in her youth she was expected to obey her parents absolutely. She said change is slow, but the girls agreed it’s easier to talk with their parents than their grandparents. Of course they mentioned their use of technology, Internet and Mobil phones.

Today, Friday, I visit UNICEF staff people—4 women and 1 man, mostly in their 20s, the visit arranged by a wonderfully helpful educator who I am going to visit in the interior province where he lives with his family. A Korean woman who lives in Chico introduced me to Mr. Yu. The staffers said that school violence and bullying has increased due to school pressure, what Ms. Kim described as “our horrible education system.” Some schools have counselors to help students. When she was in high school she would be in class until 5:30, come home and eat dinner, then study to midnight, to get up at 7:00 am. In her family her father was the absolute boss, but she’s a feminist who lives on her own in a different city. She’s not optimistic about finding a feminist husband.  Japanese teachers in their exchange programs are surprised that the Korean students have more freedom to speak up in class. The high school curriculum is more advanced than the US. A few alternative schools exist.  Some conservative politicians want to nationalize the best universities and turn the best, Seoul University, into a graduate school only. Another problem is students with connections can get into top universities. Over 85% of high school students go on to university, but families want the best.  The UNICEF programs gather youth in leadership conferences to encourage empowerment to create sustainable development, with a majority being girls. For example, the Rainbow Project themes are peace, human rights, cultural diversity, environment, globalization, local culture, and economic justice, global citizenship. Students who participate in the programs sine 2008 do report at the end of the year that they feel more motivated to make change although adults criticize youth for being politically apathetic. They feel young people are cynical as what they read in their textbooks doesn’t match reality and they don’t feel powerless to make change. Their top issue is probably unemployment and worry about getting a job.

I met with 4 young women and male staffers, good dialogue. Went to lunch with one of the women who are a feminist activist, working for the “comfort women” enslaved by the Japanese. She pointed out the same kind of practice occurs around US military bases with Philippinas, etc. She said it’s hard to find a feminist man. She was raised in a typical family where the father rules. Most of them had incredible English. UNESCO is working on youth empowerment, the teens they work with are very creative, and more girls than boys.

Then for a walk in the foothills to get a bit of nature and to an incredible folk museum where you could spend a day looking at history of daily life. Best food I’ve had was on the street, a kind of dumpling stuffed with veggies and rice noodles. Saturday I take the bus to Mr. Yu’s family where his son and daughter will take me under their wings for the weekend, then schools visits on Monday and Tuesday and the bus to the airport.


Took the Seoul subway to the bus station aided by the kindness of stingers who helped me buy a ticket on the machine. A sweet young woman walked me to the correct ticket window to buy my bus ticket, to the bus, then went and surprised me with a drink for the hour and a half ride. Lots of yellow rice fields, almost ready to harvest, a few tiled farm houses, but most people live in clusters of the gray high rises. Mr. Yu lives in one, a spacious 3 bedroom 2 bath with a large kitchen and small laundry room. Mr. Yu and his family have shown abundant kindness, taking me out to meals or cooking them with numerous dishes with spicy veggies, so healthy. We walked to his office, the provincial education headquarters, where he works late every night and often on the weekends. We dropped him off on Sunday afternoon and the parking lot was full.  His daughter took the bus from Seoul to join us; she works for the government, lives in a dorm there with her own studio apt. But doesn’t like the atmosphere of the office. They have a hazing tradition where they make newcomers drink till they get drunk at lunch and after work until the next “freshman” is hired. She and her brother (who lives at home and does IT work) recently traveled to NYC and DC with their mom. They were struck by the bigness of things (cars) and the cost—we had a terrific meal last night for $5. The sibs and I walked around downtown. Yesterday we went to a huge Presbyterian Church service, over 5,000 members, with choir and TV screens. I was surprised that there are more Christians than Buddhists here. After church we drove to a lake with historic village buildings with tile or thatch roofs, and a modern art museum. Juxtaposition. The three women drove to what we would think of as a county fair. The most striking difference is the healthy food; mostly fish and other seafood. I added steamed caterpillar to my list of eating fish testicles in Japan and yak butter tea in Tibet. Clowns wandered around dressed like beggars. I’ve been reading student responses to my global youth book questions. The main themes are they don’t like the education system where they’re at school until 11 PM every day studying with lots of pressure to do well on the college entrance exam to get into a good university to get a good job. The current political issue they mentioned is Japanese claims to small islands they consider Korean. As I hear from teachers in other countries, girls work harder and do better in school, although they’re about half of the university students in Korea.



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