This Post Card focuses on my time visiting, m and working in South Korea. I had my first expereince of visiting South Korea while I was still living in Japan. It was New Year and I decided to explore another nearby country during the break, as it was too far to travel home to the UK from Japan. It was 1997 and the internet had just started being more accessible. While doing a spot of surfing, I noticed a new website offering homestay opportunities in South Korea, so I took the plunge and arranged a two-week stay in Anyang, near Seoul over the New Year period.
The Korean language, has approximately 85 Million speakers with 80 Million native speakers and several million second-language speakers. Diaspora now means that large overseas communities have settled in Japan, Central Asia, Russia and the US. The Korean Language is thought to be a language isolate, which suggests that it has no living related languages. Although links with other languages, including Japanese, have been proposed they have subsequently been rejected. The unique Korean writing system, Hangul is said to have been created by Sejong the Great.
The statue above is of Sejong the Great, the 15th century Korean King from the Joseon Dynasty. The statue was built as part of the redesign of Central Seoul near to the Gyeongbojgung palace area. Whist King Sejong is known for his invention of Hangul, he is also believed to have been involved in championing innnovation in farming, literature, and science in addition to Confucian philosophy, in Korea.
The People I met and worked with
Although this was a relatively brief stay in a new country it was a really immersive opportunity to experience South Korea with a local family in Anyang, near Seoul. Also Kihyun Park, the homestay organiser was a manager of a chain of language schools, so I was able to learn a lot from him about English Language Teaching in South Korea. English language education began in South Korea in the 1800s, when the then government opened an English language school to train interpreters. Since that point, English has held the status as the most popular foreign language in the region, with South Korea maintaining a relatively high level of English language proficiency compared to other Asian nations.
I had also been inspired to visit South Korea due to my friend Young-Mi Kim who I had met in Rennes, whilst in France the year previously. Young-Mi had spoken about South Korea in such an energetic and animated manner.
While I was in South Korea,
I stayed at the Park family home in Anyang which was about 15 minutes by train from Seoul. The Park family were extremely welcoming and went to great pains to share details about Korean culture and to show me some of the local sites in their country. I also went off on the train during the day to visit the temples and other sites of Seoul. I remember the food being delicious as they made a special effort to cater for my vegetarian diet.
The Cheong Gye Cheon area surrounds a stream that runs through central Seoul from west to east. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), housewives and children congregated around the stream to do laundry and play but. After after the Korean War (1950-1953), poverty and homelessness turned the area into a shantytown.
I’m the late 1960s, efforts were made to improve the area due to the area’s poor condition and this work involved covering the stream with concrete.
More recently, the Metropolitan Government decided to restore the stream and this has resulted in the creation a new open public and social space where people once again gather in a beautiful new urban environment.
In subsequent years, I made good friends with Namsu Kim, a former student of mine from when I worked at Gyosei International College in Reading. I also caught up with Namsu in Seoul several years later when I was visiting South Korea on University business.
What I learned
I felt that I learnt a lot from the Park family and from my other Korean friends over the years. When Kihyun talked about the language learning business in Korea, it became clear to me how important English was to so many Koreans, as a mechanism to enhance employability skills. Living with the family and seeing their keenness to learn more about the UK and western culture, it was also obvious that participating in the homestay was a practical way for Mr Park to introduce his family to western culture. My experience was an example of all that is great about the homestay model, where both parties benefit culturally and financially in a manner which aligns with aspects of sustainability and ecotourism. Sadly, these days, homestay experiences aren't always like that, as some participating individuals use them as a money making opportunity rather than for cultural exchange.
My most memorable experiences of this visit involve exploring Seoul with its temples and busy markets in the winter weather. We also went tobogganing with the family. In addition, given the innovative nature of the homestay arrangement online, at that time, I remember being interviewed for Korean television with KBS news. Since my time in Korea, the other Korean people that I have met and made friends with have all shared the warm and welcoming characteristics of the Park family.
Impact on life afterwards
Since my first experiences of South Korea and Korean people, I have had the opportunity to return to South Korea several times, to represent the Universities which I have worked for. I've had the great fortune to meet many students and their parents from the country and have shared with them the opportunities available for study in the UK. Im also glad to say that I am still in touch with the Park family who has now moved to Israel to work with disadvantaged children in that region.