One of the hardest adjustments to working in Korea was the six day work week. Sure it was my first full time job, but after seventeen years of school, I had grown used to a two day weekend. Having only one day off, meant no resting or relaxing on Sunday. I had an entire city to explore – an entire country – I didn’t want to waste my time sitting at home. So after my first week of teaching, feeling dreadfully lost and hopeless – a condition of having accepted a job with no experience in the field – I wanted to do something fun. But what?
Still very much a novice in the ways of travel and having not yet acquired the skills to find my way without getting completely turned around, without panicking, without feeling overwhelmed, I nevertheless set my alarm and woke up early, determined to do something. It had never even occurred to me to purchase a guide book and even if it had, I wouldn’t have known what to buy. Having never traveled abroad, having no one offer any sort of practical advice, I had no clue that books such as the Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Foder’s even existed. And to make a decision even more challenging, I knew virtually nothing about Korea. I could not name one historical sight nor could I identify any prominent landmarks. In school, except for a brief mention – not much more than a footnote – about the Korean War, the peninsula did not exist. School had prepared me to pass exams, but as I was learning, it did little to prepare me for the real world. I knew there was a North and a South Korea but, before I landed in Seoul, I couldn’t have told you which one had a communistic government. In a high school psychology class, my teacher once showed us several clips from an episode of Mash. But he gave us no background regarding the show, except to say that it took place during a war.
Earlier in the week, I had a conversation with one of the Korean teachers. She mentioned Gyeongbok Palace, telling me that it was one of the more frequently visited historical sites. Since I had no other point of reference, no other inkling as to where I should go, I figured why not go there – if I could find it. Not only did I not have a guidebook, I didn’t have a map. And in 1996, smartphones were still years in the future, making navigation a bit more challenging.
By the time I reached the subway, it was still early, early enough for me to stumble about blindly and perhaps find what I was looking for. In New York City, most subway stations have a map highlighting museums and other points of interest to aid tourists as they fumble about the city. Hoping, I’d find something similar, I descended into the bowels of Seoul. Hung on the wall beside ticket machines, large and spread out so that nothing of interest could be missed, I found exactly what I wanted. Not only did I see a small icon on the city map, the subway station closest to the Palace had been named after it. I lived on the purple line (designated as line 5, but remembering colors was easier than working with numbers) and from there I’d have to transfer to the orange line.
As always, being the one only white girl on the subway made me an object of interest. Heads turned, eyes stared, and I wanted to dissolve into the seat. I hated being noticed, observed, even at home, even among friends. In school I had learned to blend into the background, disappear into books, but in the States, nothing starkly distinguished me from everyone else. It was easy to hide. I tried to read, but the multitude of eyes staring at me made me incredibly self-conscious. I couldn’t concentrate.
At the Gyeongbok station, I eagerly left the subway, only to discover there were several exits leading to the street. None of the signs were in English, so I randomly selected one. Emerging into the daylight, the heat and heavy humidity pressed against my face making breathing difficult. By the time I crossed the street – apparently having selected the wrong exit – sweat had gushed out of every pore. It dripped down my face and saturated my tee-shirt. A five minute walk brought me to the Palace gate where I purchased a ticket and headed straight for a refreshment stand to buy a bottle of cold water. I pressed it to my face, my forehead and my neck before opening it and drinking it all in one swallow.
Sitting in the shade of a tree, I read the history of the Palace which had been printed on a brochure I picked up at the ticket window. Ten minutes and a few short blurbs later, I learned more about Korea than I had in twenty-one years. How inept my history textbooks had been. Although, I did wonder, had I been sitting at a desk 11,000 miles away would I have cared? Would I have read every detail? Would I have been able to look at the world differently? Being there, surrounded by history, made it relevant, and therefore, interesting.
Gyeongbok means “Greatly Blessed By Heaven.” King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, ordered the palace built in the 1390s. For two centuries it housed the royal family, until the Imjin War, when the Japanese burned much of it. The damage was so extensive, the royal family moved to Changdoek Palace. And so Gyeongbok Palace laid in ruins until the reign of King Gojon in the mid 1800s. But war once again leveled the buildings. At the turn of the century, developing imperial ambitions, Japan invaded Korea and demolished much of the complex. Between 1911 and World War II, Japan colonized her neighbor, laying the groundwork for a divided nation following Japan’s defeat in 1945. I had no idea that Korea and Japan, so close geographically, had once been bitter enemies. But then again, my history curriculum practically ignored the entire Pacific Front.
For years, it never made sense that the United States entered the war following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor and that the War ended with the nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the emphasis in between had always been on Hitler and Germany. My teachers spoke repeatedly of the atrocities committed against the Jews, the bombs that fell on England and America’s military might. Why didn’t they tell us about Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Midway and the fact that Japan had colonized a large swath of East Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, Korea, and parts of China? We knew Hitler’s name, but not the name of the Emperor of Japan. The nazi genocide mattered, but the senseless slaughter of innocents in Asia did not. Granted, there never would have been time to learn everything. But it could have been balanced better. If I’d had any Asian teachers, would I’ve learned more about Japan? If there were more Asians in the student body, would Europe still have been a priority? Regardless, my education had been incomplete and suddenly I felt a surge of irrational anger. I never liked school. It got in the way of everything else, but my parents had always underscored its importance. Despite my aversion, I studied hard and did well, but now, three months after my college graduation I felt cheated.
But my resentment could not compare with the resentment lodged in Korea’s collective memory. They refused to let go of the past, understandably so, considering the pain Japan caused, the damage they inflicted. As I walked around, nearly every building bore a similar sign: “This is Such and Such. It was built in the year XXXX. The Japanese destroyed the original in XXXX. What you see is a replica of the original.” In weeks to come, as I went out and explored more extensively, I realized just how ubiquitous the sentiment was, for I could find numerous notations like this everywhere.
Gyeongbok Palace was my first encounter with traditional Asian architecture. To my unlearned eye, the buildings resembled Chinese structures I had seen in pictures. Red wooden buildings, with multi-tiered roofs and stone statues of animals marching up the corners were scattered throughout the grounds. Designs painted in red, blue, and green adorned the outer walls. A meticulously carved white stone balustrade surrounded the main throne hall Geunjeongjeon. Hyangwonji Lake added a sparkle of beauty, especially when the hot sun glinted off its surface. A small artificial island set in the lake bore a two-story red and green pavilion. From a distance, its refection shimmered in the water. Stone bridges crossed the lake and looming in the distance behind Geunjeongjeon, Bugaksan, the highest of four surrounding mountains, rose from the earth like a swollen green wave. I reached for my camera, wanting to capture everything.
“Excuse me,” a young middle school girl, probably twelve or thirteen-years-old, tentatively approached me, clutching a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. Following close behind, hiding in the first girl’s shadow, a second girl, roughly the same age, stared at me. They both appeared to be wearing a uniform – white blouse and blue skirt. And their hair was long. The first girl had it pulled back in a pony tail and the other girl let it hang down, bangs dangling over her eyes.
“Hi!” I said, perhaps a little too cautiously.
“I need practice English,” the more outgoing girl spoke slowly, her words choppy, her accent heavy. But it was better than I could do in Korean. “I homework Americans interview.”
“Okay,” I nodded, not exactly sure what I was agreeing to. “Let’s sit.” I motioned toward the stone steps leading up to one of the buildings. The girls sat beside me, one on either side, pressing close, their legs touching mine. Discomfort, settled around me. I hated being noticed. Getting called out and pulled aside because I looked different, because I didn’t “belong,” set my nerves marching, pounding out a steady procession. I wanted to get up and go, follow the procession around the lake, away from everyone, but I didn’t want to offend the girls. I didn’t want to be rude. Besides, wasn’t I now a teacher? Wasn’t my purpose in Korea to teach others how to speak my language? And if they were asking the questions, I didn’t have to lead the conversation, I didn’t have to worry about what I would say next, or if I’d say the wrong thing.
The girl opened her notebook, turned to page and rested it on her knees. Reading from a script, questions already prepared and written neatly, the girl began.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Elizabeth.” I remembered to speak slowly, annunciating, even exaggerating, each syllable so that she could understand me. She wrote down the answer, and I noticed the other girl just listened. Perhaps they would take turns speaking to foreigners, or many she would simply copy the answers once she got home. If as a student my teacher tasked me to go visit a tourist attraction with the sole purpose of tracking down and speaking with foreigners I wouldn’t have been able to do it. My tongue would have withered in my mouth, my voice snagged on the lump in my throat. Therefore, I couldn’t judge the other girl’s silence.
“Where are you from?”
“I am from New York.”
“What are you doing in Korea?”
“I am teaching English.” My responses were too formal. In an unregulated conversation, I wouldn’t have answered in full sentences, but since this was practice, a practical application of what she had learned in school, I didn’t want to cheat or confuse her.
“How long will you be in Korea?”
“I will be here one year.”
“How old are you?”
“I am twenty-one. Next month, I will be twenty-two.”
“Are you married?”
At twenty-one? Seriously? “No, I am not married.” Nor did I intend to be for quite some time, if ever.
“What is your favorite place in Seoul?”
“I have not been to many places. So I guess here – Gyeongbok Palace.”
“Do you like kimchi?”
I shook my head, wrinkled my nose. “No, I do not.”
“What is your favorite Korean food?”
Hmmmmm…this was a tough one. I hadn’t liked much of anything. “I guess cho-bab.”
“Do you like my country?”
“Yes.” And I was being to feel that I did. As the unknown melted into the familiar I was beginning to enjoy my surroundings, the fact that I had the opportunity to learn new things.
“Thank you!” She bowed her head. “You have been a great help.”
“You are very welcome.” I stood to go. “Good luck with your English.”
I started to walk away, and the second girl, the one who until then hadn’t said a word, called out to me. “Picture?” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a camera.
“Sure,” I forced a smile, as she flagged down a young man and handed him the camera. The girls put their arms around me and instead of “cheese,” they said “kimchi”; their lips stretching wide.
Elizabeth Jaeger holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her work has been published in Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino,Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It! When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking and reading with her young son.