This week was pretty wonderful for me. I quite right in thinking that the fresh air and green-ness would do me some good, and I have very much enjoyed the chance to do some farm work. Besides being a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of city life, it feels great to do some physical labor after not having time to exercise much in Seoul, as had running around with the kids everyday playing sports. Here are some (rather unsatisfying) attempts to capture the wonderful place we get to live in for the next few weeks.
I have also enjoyed teaching english in a more casual, tutoring style setting as opposed to the classroom style we taught at Jiguchon. Of the sixteen students currently living at the school, only the six eldest are not attending local elementary school during the day and so available to attend English lessons in the mornings, so we have four one on one classes and two two on one classes. The students are all preparing to take either college entrance exams or a GED equivalent, so their english requirements are all pretty nebulous. Their prior experience differs greatly as well. One student converses with her teacher about the recent Supreme Court affirmative action case and the Kanye – Taylor beef, while others work on how to form questions. Whatever the level, we have all found this type of teaching to allow us a much closer relationship with our students, and enjoy it greatly.
Although we’ve not had nearly as much free time as our professors warned us we would have, it has been relaxing to have at least some, and to not feel rushed the rest of the time. Other than english class, so far our daily schedule has gone something like this:
- Breakfast that includes both traditional Korean fair as well as toast and cereal (about 3 hours earlier than I woke up during the semester, but I’m adapting much better than I expected to)
- “School Cleaning,” a two-hour period which has ranged from weeding rows of egg-plant and peppers, to sweeping and organizing the gym, to cleaning out and re-bedding the chicken coop
- English lessons, as described above.
- Lunch/nap time
- Conversation with refugees, POWs, or other people who have spent time in North Korea; viewing of relevant movie; or group meeting
- Group activity time (arts, games, or recreation with the kids, or cooking a meal for them as a team)
- Sports or music time for the last hour ’til 8:00 pm
It’s been wonderful to get to know the kids during all of the non-academic activity time. They are so much more excited and willing to converse with us than we expected (we were told that they would be very shy and probably a little bit scared of us, or at the very least a little reserved), and with the exception of just a few, they have been very active in getting to know us, and a few have even delved into their some of their past and family stories, which are quite painful and which we did not expect to be privy to this early in our time here. I was also a bit surprised at how eager the Korean soldier that we talked to, who had spent over 50 years as a POW in North Korea, was to share his quite harrowing experience with a group of foreign college kids he had never met. After telling us a basic outline of his life story we opened up a Q&A and after we tested the waters with a few less serious questions he told us, straight up “ask me about my hardship in North Korea” and what the subsequent questions uncovered was not what I expected at all. He said that they did endure the labor camps and the constant surveillance and spying on each other, but the hardest part came after they were released from the camps. Apparently, after a while the POW camp he was in was closed, and he was allowed to live a limited life as a North Korean semi-citizen. When asked what the hardest part was, he said that he guessed that we expected a more detailed story of his physical suffering, but that it was actually to do with the family he was allowed to start once he was released. Everything about the society is based around hierarchy, and because he was a prisoner of war, his children were at the very bottom of the food chain, and at one point his eldest son told him that because of him, he had no chance in life, and asked why he had ever been born. He also recounted the story of one of his compatriots, whose son told him in a fit of helplessness and rage that maybe if he killed himself he would have a chance in life. So he did. I was very touched by how he told these stories, and as absorbed as I was in his telling of them, I did not realize until after how powerful the culture of status must be in North Korea to produce this. The most striking realization that I had however was that for the last half of his time as a POW, he was functionally living as a North Korean citizen, and that by the South Korean government’s logic of illegitimacy of the North, technically every North Korean citizen who did not willingly go has been a prisoner of war since the 50s.
Anyways, besides our incredible experiences at the school this week, we were also given the opportunity to travel to the coast and see the spectacular mountain views, as well as the Eastern most tip of the DMZ. The mountains were like something out of a Lord of the Rings movie, but with the beautiful red-barked pines that only grow in this quarter of the world (and which I am very fond of). Atop one of them, we were able to see a beautiful old Buddhist temple. Sadly, my phone was out of battery so I don’t have any pictures of the temple, but I did manage some low quality shots of the mountains out of the bus window (forgive the reflection of the phone in the window):
The part of the DMZ that we visited, along with the museum dedicated to the whole thing, were some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had here yet outside of teaching. Maybe it’s just that I’m appreciating the full gravity of everything because I am more fully informed, but the beaches of the DMZ especially were quite powerful. Such a beautiful melding of majestic white rock mountains and tranquil blue sea, with greenery everywhere, covered in land mines and barbed wire. It’s such a beautifully sad metaphor for all of the human life that will never be shared or experienced because of this conflict, and all of the potential that lies in the middle of it, untouched by both sides. A particularly heart wrenching moment was a little boy jumping up and down and exclaiming excitedly to his father, motioning something about swimming. His father sat down next to him and said something very somberly that I couldn’t understand, but I had an inkling from the way the boy’s face fell.
My apologies for the lengthy post, but this week merited one. Thanks again for reading!
Bonus: Picture of the adorable King of the Land, Momi