Update from Korea
By Erica Burman on Thursday, October 16th, 2008
We recently got this interesting update from RPCV Kevin O’Donnell (Korea Country Director 66-70, Peace Corps Director 71-72), who was one of the lucky RPCV’s to be invited by Korean president Lee Myung Bak to make a return trip to Korea as an official guest of the government. If you’d like more details about the trip, including another RPCV’s perspective, be sure to check out our other blog post here. The Friends of Korea website also has information about the trip.
Kevin had some exciting experiences to share with us about his busy trip:
I used Saturday to catch up on jet-lag with some naps, a light dinner and early to bed. I was able to finish my speech for Monday’s session. My opening remarks were to cover the genesis of Peace Corps in Korea. This included how the strategy was developed, what was the environment into which the PCVs were entering, living conditions (especially housing) in the rural areas and other points relevant to the start up of PC in Korea.
Sunday morning, a small group of us went to Brunch at the Lotte Hotel and planned to go on to Mass at the Cathedral. We ended up talking so much we miss the English Mass. Sunday night was an informal gathering in the hotel dining room followed by a review of the week’s (very full) schedule.
Our first session was at the Korea Foundation headquarters in a large and well appointed conference room. We had the usual visual presentation by our Korean hosts covering all their activities. As I was the opening speaker after their presentation, I started to review my hand written notes and discovered that I had not put them in my pocket. Well, I felt this was Kismet or something, so I accepted it and didn’t panic. When I finished, I received a standing ovation. Que sera, sera!!!
My talk was followed by an RPCV who is an authority on the Korean economy, a representative from the Ministry of Education giving us an update in this area, and then by a Doctor from the Ministry of Health who is their expert on TB, an area in which many Volunteers worked. We adjourned for lunch.
The luncheon was at the Lotte Hotel and hosted by the Korea Foundation. Their President gave a very warm and complimentary welcoming talk. He spoke highly of the work of the Volunteers and how this was helpful in Korea’s economic growth in the ’60′s and ’70′s. He covered the person to person aspects of the V’s presence and the lasting effect on the V’s co-workers, students and host families.
He then introduced the new US Ambassador who had just presented her credential two hours before to President Lee Myon Bok, using the diplomatic protocol that is very formal. Ambassador Kathy Stephens was a PCV in Korea in the mid 70′s and is the first woman Ambassador to Korea. Her remarks were a combination of PCV jargon and inside jokes about being a Volunteer, coupled with the diplomatic comments on friendship and cooperation between the ROK and the US. All in all she did a great job. She was followed by a Volunteer from 1969 who showed the medical community that deaf children can learn to speak. Because of her initial work, Korea now has several clinics specializing in this field.
Following the food service, we were entertained by two groups of Korean musicians. They first played traditional songs on native Korean instruments. The second played on simple instruments like a harmonica, drum and bamboo sticks. It is hard to imagine, but they were able to make beautiful music, which basically followed the traditional Korean melodies.
We were then bused to the Korea Overseas Volunteers headquarters which is located in a group of magnificent new buildings housing all of Korea’s activities in the area of foreign assistance. Again, there were tables set up with fruit and desserts and we were seated with a Korean Volunteers who were in an orientation session prior to leaving for their overseas post for in-country training. The gave us their overview presentation. An RPCV from Korea 1 gave a short summation of his experiences as a Volunteer highlighting the high and low spots he felt as a foreigner in a strange culture.
I then gave a shorter version of my morning speech concentrating on my usual advice to potential PCVs: Accept people for who they are and not who you think they should be; suspend judgement and don’t try to mentally process clues or impressions until you better understand the culture; and finally respect the host country culture, especially if it is different from your own. We then opened it for anyone to ask questions or share their experiences as PCVs. Overall it was a lively session and there was a lot of sharing. They finally had to stop the session as we were running late for the next one.
The evening reception, hosted by The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was at the Shilla Hotel. This is probably the top hotel in Seoul. The proceedings began in the usual manner with a welcoming speech by the Minister who again expressed deep appreciation of Peace Corps contributions to Korea. He then introduced Kathy Stephens and she spoke mainly of her Peace Corps experience, but did put in some political remarks. Next, an RPCV from Korea 1 gave a nice humorous talk about his trials and tribulations in adjusting to everything in Korea and did it all in Korean.
Finally, a woman RPCV sang in a beautiful voice an old sentimental Korea folk song which brought down the house. The dinner was delicious. During dinner, we were entertained by Korea musicians playing classical drum music. Loud, but good, if you’re into drums.
All in all a grand climax to a most memorable day.