After a Marvel movie, three OneRepublic albums and two bad airplane meals, I finally arrived in South Korea. The guesthouse we’re staying at is located in Hongdae, a vibrant college district filled with nice coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques. One of the things that struck me on my first walk through the area was all the street singers and dancers. I thought it odd that crowds of people gathered around these performers to watch and cheer them on. I later learned that many of these performers were students at the nearby Hongik University, which is known for its performance and art programs.
On Tuesday we departed Hongdae for the Institute of Unification Education, located in a scenic mountain range north of Seoul, to take part in a three-day government-run education program to learn about North and South Korean unification. I loved the charismatic personalities of our teachers and I learned a lot about inter-Korean relations, but at times the lectures had a rehearsed feel to it and it was obvious that they were only interested in talking about unification from a South Korean perspective. We watched a drama called Boy Meets Girl, which tells the story of a North Korean middle school girl who comes to South Korea for a homestay with the goal of trying to meet her father who had defected to South Korea and ends up falling in love with the South Korean boy who helps her find him. Though the film was pretty cliché, it conveyed the importance of relationships and families separated by the division of Korea (and the kids were pretty cute). On the second day we woke up at 5AM, which really wasn’t that hard since I was still pretty jetlagged, to hike up a mountain in the nearby Bukansan National Park. The day was pretty cloudy, so we didn’t get any good views at the top but as a wise man once said: it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
My favorite part of the program was getting to have a sit-down conversation with a North Korean refugee. It’s one thing to listen to lectures and read about the brainwashing and human rights abuses that goes on in North Korea, but it’s entirely more sobering to hear about it from someone who experienced it. On the final day we visited the DMZ and got to see parts of North Korea from the Odusan observatory. We also visited the Dorasan Train Station and Inter-Korea transit station, a customs station where South Koreans who worked at the Kaesong Joint Industrial Complex in North Korea would pass through every day. I got a strange vibe at these places, particularly at the observatory where tourists watched North Koreans with telescopes as if they were animals in a zoo. We even had a guide take us through all the locations as if we were a tour group. The whole experience felt weird given the significance and history of the relationship between these two countries.
Seoul is everything. There are so many places to visit, things to eat, shops to browse and people to talk to. But being in a country where I don’t speak the language or know the culture has been an odd and at times scary experience. In many ways it has helped me understand how the kids we are teaching English to must be feeling. We start teaching at Jiguchon Elementary School on Monday and I am both excited and nervous to meet the kids. On one other bright note, I think I’m finally figuring out how this whole subway thing works. Oh, and convenience stores in Korea are amazing!
The other day while I was sitting in a café I heard the Korean pop song Heart Shaker (by Twice) come on. Lyrically, the song captures the feelings of a girl as she courageously reaches out for a confession to someone who has “shaken” her heart. Though I have just arrived, Seoul has shaken my heart.