Seoul and Kunsan

I first lived in Korea in 1973 when I was stationed in Seoul as a U.S. Naval communications technician. I later returned to Seoul with my wife in 2000 and taught at a kindergarten. Since then, I have taught again in Korea twice but most remember the six months I lived in Kunsan during 2002. It was my return to Asia after being in the U.S.A. during the 9-11 event. Kunsan is a town near the coast about two-thirds of the way down the western edge of Korea. It is also famous — among Americans at least — for the Kunsan Air Force base. However, this story is NOT about my memories of being in the military. I am glad to leave most of them behind. The American military doesn’t have too much to be proud of these days. They’ve become a paid, mercenary force that has long forgotten its mission of protecting the Constitution (something the average military man doesn’t understand or think about very much).

Kunsan, although near the coast, is inland along a broad river that leads out to the harbor. It is crossed by a barrage on the northern side of town. I used to bicycle out that way, cross the barrage, and ride along the coast north of town. Somewhere out there, I lost my wedding ring given to me by my Nepalese wife. I suppose it was a symbol of ‘letting go of the past’ for me when it happened — I had left my wife in the U.S.A. While in Kunsan, I worked in a kindergarten. I also had a homestay with the family of my boss. It was my second homestay with a Korean family. My first was back in 1973 when life in Seoul was very different. Then, the family I stayed with earned its living by being a band — one that performed at clubs on local army bases scattered north of Seoul. I remember them practicing with their instruments at the house. It was noisy but I didn’t mind at the time. There was also no hot water and heating was done of the floor with charcoal burned underneath it. The family’s kids introduced me to the local bath house and we played a lot of table tennis together. But, this story is about Kunsan. This second homestay, moved forward almost thirty years in time, was very different. We lived in an apartment with all the modern conveniences but even then we could find an isolated village farm house nestled on the ground between the towering apartment blocks. I was most happy riding my bike with friends from the local mountain biking club out of the city in the countryside. I also revisited the bath house. Kunsan has some lovely ones. Americans don’t know much about bath house culture or social etiquette, for that matter. Perhaps that explains our belligerence to the rest of the world — at least in part. It is hard to be belligerent to someone you have seen naked in a bath house. Somehow, taking off one’s clothes is like ‘taking off the ego’ for a while and remembering that we are all human in spite of our differences.

I also spent a lot of time walking in the local parks. Kunsan has several and Koreans like to walk. They like to fish and camp — they like the outdoors more than most other Asians I’ve met. I feel closest to their culture. Most people don’t realize their Mongolian origins — perhaps another reason I like that country. I remember one park in particular where I could walk to the top of the hill and look over the river below. If you look closely at the picture here, you can see the barrage in the distance. Of course, Korean culture wouldn’t be the same without ‘kimchi’. Many books have been written about this ‘pickled cabbage’ (and other vegetables) but the bottom line is that it’s one of the healthiest foods a human can eat. Koreans don’t come down with colds or the flu very often.

From Kunsan, one can take a local ferry out to a nearby island. It is called Sunyudo and I made two trips there. The first was during the World Cup of 2002 when Korea beat Japan. My first visit to the island was during one of the matches with Germany. I only remember they won by something like 7 goals. I don’t remember much else at the time — I had two bottles of Sojo that night. I stayed in a local guest house and had fresh sushi Korean style — flounder. It was very good but I never did develop the taste for baby octopus sushi. Something about its tentacles still wiggling down one’s throat as it is swallowed didn’t agree with me. I also never tried dog soup. I saw a lot of local farmers keeping dogs for the soup pot during my bicycle rides but the smell of it cooking in my homestay family’s kitchen was enough to send me back outside. I did love crab soup, though. On Sunyudo Island, there is a large mut flat during low tide where thousands upon thousands of those crabs are out there just walking around. They’re not easy to catch, either, as they pop back into their holes in the mud at the first sign of danger.

Just in front of this picture was a restaurant where a friend and student of mine took me for that crab soup — delicious! The student was the retired mayor of Kunsan — he was 67 when I taught him English. He and his friend of the same age, a retired high school teacher, took me out to Sunyudo Island and introduced me to the locals. The mayor had grown up on this island so I was made to feel welcome. This is also another place I could have loved to spend the rest of my life in. The ferry boat ride out to the island takes a couple of hours but the island is still in sight of the main Korean coast. Yet, while out there, one is in another world.

I made a second trip out to this island with a younger student — an elementary school aged youngster. We slept out on the beach in a tent and went swimming in the water. It was colder than I was accustomed to and the beach requires a boat to guard against local sharks. It reminded me a lot of my stays on other islands off the coasts of other countries — in the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh. I must have the ocean in my blood. I was a natural sailor and never got seasick when at sea during the trip I made in the 1970’s from the Philippines to the Red Sea. But, back to Sunyudo Island. There wasn’t much to do out there except go fishing, eat out in the local restaurants, and hire bicycles to ride around the island. We were able to get to the tops of the islands’ hills and look down upon the beach where we slept.

It’s a sight I shouldn’t ever forget. As I type these words, I find myself in Vientiane, Laos in a guest house — sharing a dormitory room with a handful of Koreans. It has helped me remember this time. I am returning to China this year although it could have just as easily been a return to Korea. From China, I hope to go further north and revisit Mongolia. Korea and Mongolia are both colder places than Bangladesh, India, or the Philippines. However, it seems the world is becoming a colder place. Instead of global warming, scientists who have rejected that story are now warning that another Ice Age is ready to begin. I feel like going north to the Arctic Circle — if it’s going to get a lot colder I want to welcome the change in climate and learn how to live with it. So, from another favorite memory, I look forward to the future.

January 2009
Vientiane, Laos

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