Archive for February, 2008

Birthday, Take II

After I posted my blog entry about celebrating my birthday, I got a bunch of concerned e-mails.  People were worried that I must have been lonely eating cake by myself in the evening.  Actually I had had such a busy and enjoyable day at graduation, cake by myself was a decadent, reflective way to end the day.  However, should anyone still feel I was somehow cheated of a proper celebration, I had one today. 

The mail brought a package filled with thoughtfully chosen presents from a group of colleagues in New Hampshire.  What amazing people!  As I opened things, people kept stopping by; today was the first day of registration for students and all faculty were on campus, working and visiting.   Opening presents became a bit of a group event.

I had previously arranged to go out to dinner with more Pyeongtaek faculty, and they turned dinner into a birthday celebration.  Afterward we went to norebang (karaoke in private rooms) and I got the Happy Birthday song in both English and Korean.  A friend had baked cinnamon cakes and spelled out “Happy B-Day Beth” in sugar stars and red and green sprinkles.  We filled the norebang with song, including Take Me Home Country Roads, The Power of Love, Sloop John B, My Way, Three Times a Lady, Uptown Girl, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Johnny Guitar, Hotel California and a number of Korean hits.  I still have not managed to learn a song in Korean, but two students have promised to try and teach me so I can sing in Korean before I leave. 

As has often happened during my time here, I am a bit overwhelmed by people’s generosity of spirit and gifts of friendship.   If all my birthdays are like this one, I am going to thoroughly enjoy growing older.

Add comment February 26, 2008

Roman Catholicism in Korea and Saint Anselm’s Humanities Program

Myeongdong CathedralKorean Roman Catholics take great pride that Korea is one of the few places in the world where Catholicism arrived before missionaries.  Catholicism came to Korea first via a Korean royal who converted while in China.  In the 1700s missionaries arrived from China and Japan and in the early 1800s from France.  The first recognized Catholic faith community in Korea met in 1784 at Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul.   It may give you a sense of how big Seoul is and how many Catholics there are to realize that Myeongdong Cathedral holds Sunday mass at 7, 9, 10, and 11 am as well as 12, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 pm in addition to masses for elementary and handicapped students, middle and high school students and an English language mass.  About 11% of Koreans are Catholic (4.5 million people).

Jeoldusan Stations of the CrossBut Catholics faced violent persecution at numerous points in Korean history and thousands were executed all across the county.  In 1839 all the French priests were killed.  In the 1866 killings, 8000 of Korea’s 23,000 Catholics were killed.  When Pope John Paul II visited Korea in 1984 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the official establishment of the Catholic Church in Korea, he canonized 103 martyrs.  The site where he prayed is called Joldusan or Beheading Mountain.

Jeoldusan Martyr Memorial

At Saint Anselm, I teach in our required 2 year Humanities program, which contains a unit on the early Christian martyrs.  We read about Saints Perpetua and Felicitas who were brought before the Roman authorities for failing to make the sacrifices that recognized the Emperor as a deity.  Even when her father pleaded with her on behalf of her family and baby child, Perpetua would not renounce her faith.  In an era when Church and State were deeply linked, this disrespect of religious ritual was also treason.  When State and family were deeply linked, this disrespect of family lineage and authority showed one to be a danger to society.  So Perpetua was executed.

My Humanities students may be shocked to discover that this 3rd century A.D. story is deeply relevant for Korean history (and that of other martyrs around the world).  Catholics here in Korea were executed for exactly these two reasons. 

Jeonju Catholic ChurchAt a time when the state religion was based on Confucianism, Catholics’ unwillingness to perform the traditional worship of the King was seen as treason. Their stress on human equality in the sight of God also challenged the divine hierarchies in society, another form of treason. Their lack of patriotism seemed an attack by insiders to a nation constantly struggling with attacks from outsiders.   In addition, Catholics’ unwillingness to perform ancestral rites for their own families was seen as threatening to the stability of society.  They were not good citizens or family members.  Koreans feared their gods and their ancestors would abandon them if they did not kill the Catholics.

Humanities students may also be surprised to see a statue of Michaelangelo’s Pieta outside one of the major shrine sites in Jeonju, South Korea.  Michaelangelo’s expression of the pain of a mother, and the depth of her son’s sacrifice, resonates even for South Korean Catholics.Jeonju Pieta

 I always love it when what I teach in class turns out to be useful in what students think of as “real life” (forgetting that my ‘real life’ mostly happens in the classroom!).  Being able to connect and compare across time and space is an amazing life skill.  It is also remarkably useful when trying to find one’s footing in a new and different culture.

Add comment February 25, 2008

The Imjin War and Turtle Boats

Turtle Boat replica in Yeosu In 1592, the great Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to invade China by going through Korea.  Although he asked permission to pass through Korea, Koreans had been allied with China for over a millennium and refused.  The Japanese then invaded Korea, which had a minimal army.  The Japanese took the capitol in less than two weeks.  When China sent assistance, the battles raged across Korea for six years.  The Japanese were finally expelled in 1598 when their general died.

While they had few if any land victories, the Koreans were quite successful on the sea.  Admiral Yi Sun-shin is celebrated in both North and South Korea as a national hero.  His major contribution, in addition to brilliant command, was the invention of geobukseon or turtle boats. 

Turtle Boat ReplicaTurtle boats were wooden ships plated with spiked iron armor on top so that they could not be boarded.  Windows could be opened on the sides to permit archers to shoot out, but the windows were angled so that arrows could not come in.  To prevent the oars from breaking every time the ship came near another ship, the Admiral had them re-engineered so they pointed down instead of out, making the ship quick and maneuverable in close quarters.  Directional changes were signaled by flags, speed changes by drum; that way no one needed to hear words over the roar of the cannon. 

Each turtle boat had a four foot dragon head on the front and often the back as well.  Inside the front of the ship, an incense burner was filled with sulphur and saltpeter to create a white (and likely foul-smelling) smoky mist.  This was supposed to cloak the boat’s approach in stormy weather, though it also likely sparked fear in the enemy in clear weather!

Turtle Boat drumThe Imjin war still resonates in Korea, in part due to the later takeover by Japan in the early 20th century.  Koreans like to emphasize how much of Japan’s cultural renaissance after this war was due to the kidnapped potters, calligraphers, scholars and cultural treasures the Japanese took with them back to Japan.   But the most famous part of the war is definitely the turtle boats.  For more pictures, click on any of the images in this blog, and click on the little word saying “Turtle Boat set”. 

2 comments February 22, 2008

Birthdays and Celebrations

Pyeongtaek campus at graduationLast month I turned 40, this month I turned 39, and I celebrated with 3000 people I had never met before.

Maybe that needs some explaining….

In Korea, age is counted differently than in the United States.  When babies are born they are considered to be one year old.  Everyone ages one year on New Year’s Day.  Therefore a person born in February would be one on the day they are born, 2 the next January 1st and 3 the following January 1st (rather than 22 months or 2 years old as we would say in the United States).

Therefore since I was born in 1969 and was thus 1, I became 40 in Korean years on New Year’s Day 2008. 

In U.S. years, I turned 39 on my birthday this month.  Having already turned 40, I feel like I’m getting younger all the time! 

flower sellers on campusMy birthday also happened to be graduation day at Pyeongtaek University.  There were food vendors all over campus, balloons, eight different stands selling bouquets of flowers, roving photographers, and thousands of very happy people.  No one knew it was my birthday, but it was a fine celebration all the same.

Graduations here are different than in the U.S., although I do not know if Pyeongtaek’s is standard for Korea.  The main ceremony looked much more like Saint Anselm’s Honors Convocation the night before graduation.  The top student in each major was given an award, a Presbyterian minister gave a homily, and M.A. and Ph.D. students received their diplomas from the President of the College and their advisors.  I was particularly struck by the nun who received her degree in full habit and full Ph.D. gown, and the band, which played Beautiful Dreamer and It’s a Small World After All, among other more traditional pieces.  The huge screen enabled everyone to see, even from the very back.

graduation on the big screenAfter the main ceremony, the ceremonies for the undergraduates took place by major in classrooms and meeting rooms around the University.  Almost every American Studies class is taught in the same classroom, Main Building room 207.  So today we met there for a celebration designed and executed by the students.  A student led us in prayer, we watched a video montage of the students’ four years, and we listened to the class President and each faculty member make a congratulatory speech.  Then the chair of the department handed each graduate a diploma and a gift.  The students walked the “receiving line” of faculty for words of congratulations and encouragement, and the occasional tissue for those whose tears got the better of them.  Sophomores and juniors attended, as did some parents and well-wishers; people signed cards for one another and took lots of pictures.  It was small (22 graduates, 65 people), almost familial (well, if you have a big family).  Even I got a bit choked up - I have really come to like some of the students, and they clearly returned the enthusiasm.

birthday flowersAfterward, I bought myself flowers (three kinds of orchids) and cake.  I ate a fine meal and opened paper and electronic cards (kudos to Aunt Anna who got a paper card to arrive here exactly today!).   Earlier my husband and parents had sung me happy birthday in separate phone calls.  

All in all, you couldn’t ask for a better day, surrounded by happy people, good food, and the warm wishes of friends and family.  And it was the first day in two weeks when I could be outside without gloves and a hat without risking frostbite.  It doesn’t get any better than that!

2 comments February 19, 2008


Jeonju Hanok Village with modern Jeonju in backgroundHan-ok are traditional Korean homes for the wealthy.  In the Joseon dynasty (14-19th centuries), the aristocracy lived in these house-compounds.  A hanok often consisted of one building for the man of the house, with a study, school room and guest facilities, and another building for the rest of the family, storage, food preparation and recreation.  The spaces between and around the buildings would be enclosed by a wall to provide privacy and safety.

The city of Jeonju, about 2 hours south of Pyeongtaek, is well-known for having preserved over 700 of these hanok ranging from 600 to 70 years in age.  Some of these homes have been turned into tourist facilities.  A friend and I stayed in one called “Jeonju Korean Traditional Life Experience Park”. 

Our room in JeonjuOur room was similar to others I have seen.  Inside the external wooden doors, there are sliding wooden doors covered in rice paper.  There are usually a few long, low pieces of furniture and lots of “yo” (thick padded Korean bedding) and small rectangular bean- filled pillows.  Sometimes there is a tiny bathroom, which doubles as the shower; otherwise you use common facilities elsewhere in the building.  Heat comes from the ondol heat (originally provided by a fire under the floor, but now provided by a modern heating unit under the floor).

Like many traditional things, hanok are beautiful to look at, but they must have been a bit tough to actually live in.  The walls are thin, so every sound carries.  The ondol floor heating combined with drafty wooden windows means that all night your backside roasts and your chest is shivering.  External bathrooms are tough in the rain, though still an improvement over the original chamber pots.  The pillows are also an improvement over the original wood, but still more orthopedic than comfortable. 

Our hanok in JeonjuBut once you are awake, the hanok village provides the opportunity to live in two time periods at once.  Walking along the pathways created between hanok walls, one can find buildings where artisans still hand-produce paper, a calligrapher doing brush painting, a mom with a car seat trying to herd kids to the car, or a tea house with a zen garden and Justin Timberlake on the stereo. 

Some hanok have gotten quite run down.  Many backyards looked far more like “rural poor” than “aristocratic garden”.   This reflects the changes in Korea’s economy since the landed gentry ruled the country.  But renovated or not, hanok are a living tie to the past.  Trying to preserve them in ways that respect their history, while also providing their owners with a living, has created a fascinating tourist experience.Run down Hanok

Add comment February 16, 2008

Double Takes

Here are a few things that have caught me by surprise or made me think twice in the past few weeks.  All except one are specific to Korea.


1)  The bathroom “medicine cabinet”.  Recently I got a new package of drugs and read, in English, “Store in cool, dry location….”.  You know the drill, do not let it freeze, do not let it boil – I would bet most people do not even read these bland directions.  But something did not sound right this time.  I read it again:  cool, DRY location.  Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, will remember that my bathroom here in Korea doubles as my shower stall.  The one thing it is not is DRY.  So six months into my ten month stay, my “medicine cabinet” is now a drawer in the living room.  The UPPER drawer – see #2.

2)  Chocolate’s melting point.  It seemed like a good idea – buy a few kinds of Korean chocolate and ship them to my husband as a gift.  So I shopped on the walk home from the library, put the bag down on the floor, and cooked dinner.  Suddenly, I realized – my floor is HEATED!  Korean ondol heating means the hot water pipes under the floor heat the apartment or house.  So my chocolate had been sitting ON A HOT WATER PIPE!  Rescuing it just in time, I put it in a box, sealed and addressed the box, and put it…well, where does one put stuff when you can’t put it on the floor?  Guess that’s why my apartment has two beds – one for sleeping and one to store chocolate.

3)  “American” chocolate.  While we are on the subject, I do not eat much chocolate – I do not like the taste and am sensitive to caffeine.  But once in a while here I want a piece of home and Snickers and Twix bars have enough caramel, I overlook the chocolate.  The “sense of home” may be in the taste, but the wrapper says otherwise.  Twix bars here are made just outside Moscow.  Snickers are made in “Yan Qi industrial development zone Huairou

County, Beijing P.R.China”.  I wonder if anybody there eats them?

4)  “Exotic” food.  Today I had some of the most exotic food I’ve ever eaten in Korea – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  It was exotic for me because I made it on black bean bread, which has soft black beans embedded in the bright purple bread.  Other bread choices include sesame black rice (black) and sweet pumpkin (bright orange).  But it was also exotic because sandwiches are a foreign food in Korea;  people know what they are, but they are not a standard lunch choice.  So eating PB&J, instead of soup, kimchee, rice, and sides, makes me seem exotic.  And it is easier than kohl eyeliner!

5) Solving the family problems with a Catch-22.  Some of my family members are infamous for two things – afternoon naps and overeating.  I enjoy both at times.  But in regaining my health here in Korea, I have lost the chance to do either.  To keep my stomach acid under control, I am not allowed to lie down until 3 hours after I have last eaten.   Can you imagine how hard it becomes for a snacker (that’s snacker, not slacker) to take an afternoon nap?  It is NEVER three hours after I have eaten!  So I either have to stop snacking or stop napping.  Given that I also cannot go to bed for the night until 3 hours after I have last eaten, when 10 pm rolls around I’m both hungry (too few snacks) and exhausted (too few naps).  This wasn’t what I expected when I signed up for the “living abroad challenge”! 

Further reports as events warrant. 

Add comment February 15, 2008

Cultural Loss

In the center of townNew Hampshirities and South Koreans woke up with something new in common this morning - the destruction of a national icon.  Those who remember waking up to the news that the Old Man of the Mountain had finally slid into infinity will understand how Seoulites feel this morning.  They awoke to news that a 610 year old gate called Sungnyemun or Namdaemun was gone.  This gate was originally part of a wall that defended Seoul from invasion.  It was designated as National Treasure Number 1 in 1962.

close up - note the paintingIt will take some time to determine the cause of the fire, but early guesses are arson.  This makes the news all the more awful; this disaster was not natural, not the result of time and impersonal forces.  In addition, Korea lost thousands of their national treasures during various invasions by China and Japan and have invested billions of dollars in restoring those that remain.  The vast majority are wooden structures, and so most are vulnerable to arson.close up - note curved roof

Early estimates suggest it will take 20 million dollars and 3 years to restore this symbol of Seoul and Korea.  I am sure Koreans will spend the time and money.  They have spent millennia rebuilding.  But this morning, people are more focused on what they have lost.

Add comment February 11, 2008

Seollal or Lunar New Year

Ancester Veneration Ceremony Set-UpKoreans have traditionally followed two calendars, the solar one we use in the West and a lunar calendar.  About half of Korea’s holidays are set by one calendar, half by the other; therefore my cell phone provides me the date in both calendars!  This year Ipchun or first day of spring fell on February 4th.  Usu or first rainfall of the year should fall on February 19th (I hope “first rain” also means “last snow”!).  Seollal is lunar new year and it fell on February 7th.   It is one of the two biggest holidays in Korea.  The other is Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving (see blog entry at

On both Seollal and Chuseok, families travel across the country to their parents’ homes or the home of the eldest son in the male line (women usually travel to the husband’s family’s home).  A colleague from Pyeongtaek and his wife kindly invited me to join their family celebration.

Seollal FoodWhen I arrived in the morning, the women of the family had already been shopping for over a week and cooking for two days.  The only male cooking responsibility is to peel the chestnuts.  The men also set up the calligraphy screen (in this case a wedding gift from the wife’s father), as well as the “altar” table.  Westerners have usually translated this celebration as “ancestor worship” making it sound incompatible with Christianity, but this family is devoutly Christian.  They have adapted the original tradition of “placating” the ancestors with wine, incense, fine food and sweet desserts in exchange for good luck in the New Year.  Like many Korean Christians, they continue the tradition as “ancestor veneration” or formally remembering their grandparents and great grandparents at family events.  (I can only imagine my deceased grandparents were a tad jealous  - my grandmothers would have been eager to try ”just a taste” of everything!)

After the food was set up on the table, the ceremony began which primarily consists of pouring a cup of rice wine, moving it in a circle three times around a stick of incense, and then formally bowing three times to show respect and remembrance.  The family did this for both of the wife’s parents and for the husband’s father.  Traditions are changing so fast in Korea that each family does the ceremony differently - some are very serious, some allow laughing and joking, some families wear traditional clothing or hanbok, others wear western business clothing.  In this case only the grandmother in the family and myself wore traditional hanbok.  Hers is the beautiful dress style.  Mine is called “practical” hanbok and is of much simpler material.

Seollal foodAfter the ancestors had a brief chance to “eat” the food, it was our turn.   Although there were only seven of us, there was enough food for dozens of people.  It will be eaten by visiting relatives for 2 or 3 days.   Traditional food includes two kinds of fish, beef, many kinds of egg pancake or jeon (dried fish, mushroom, pork, and vegetable), plus rice cake soup (ddoek guk), tofu, vegetables, and rice.  Dessert includes peeled raw chestnuts, dried pomegranates, fresh pears and apples, and a sweet rice drink called shikye.  This family added cheesecake this year! (If you click on the picture of the table, you will find a larger version of the picture and a detailed list of all the foods; you can also find it[email protected]/2257697200/ .

Children love Lunar New Year because in exchange for deep bows of respect and a willingness to listen to to a few minutes of good advice, they receive envelopes of cash.  This provides an incentive to sit semi-quietly in traffic for endless hours to visit less frequently seen relatives or other elders.  My colleague’s holiday tradition includes visiting his dissertation advisor, the founder of American Studies in Korea.  I like this unassuming and quiet “grand old man” very much, so I went along.  Sitting in a car for two hours traveling to Seoul reminded me of many U.S. holiday trips.  When the Korean radio station played Van Halen, Donna Summers, the Bee Gees and the infamous “Da Doo Run Run Run, Da Doo Run Run”  I was glad I had worn hanbok.  Otherwise I might have wondered if I had entered a time warp!

hanbokAmericans and Koreans may have different forms for their most special holidays, but the basics are the same - food and family.  Here perhaps there is also more emphasis on remembering the past and preserving family connections in a period of rapid and unsettling cultural change.  As Korea becomes a more global, multiracial and multicultural society, more and more families travel abroad during Seollal, taking advantage of the five day weekend to vacation.  But many still practice the older traditions, trying to adapt them to modern needs.  By inviting a foreigner to join them for the first time, both my colleague’s family and his advisor’s brought together past and future.  I am very grateful. 

Add comment February 11, 2008

What does it mean to be an American?

Beth at Chung Nam University, DaejonA few months ago, I was a guest lecturer in another Pyeongtaek University professor’s class. A student asked me “What does it mean to be an American?” A month later, I gave a lecture to an international conference on the topic of the impact of the American Revolution on modern American society. Again, I was asked, “How do you define ‘being American’?” In both cases, I was a bit at a loss for words. “Well that is partly what I came to Korea to find out!” I joked. But it was a good question, and one which some people in America hotly debate.

In both cases, I gave the best answer I had. First, despite the massive rise in the use of Spanish, we still define Americans as people who speak English. Perhaps this is particularly true for me because as soon as I open my mouth here in Korea, people ask me if I am American (I speak English and it does not have a British or Australian accent). People would not ask that immediately if I spoke Spanish.

Second, we are people who believe in equality, even if we do not always practice it. We have good ideals in the Declaration of Independence and good practices based on the Constitution. When we adhere to our ideals and practices, we treat each other respectfully and fairly. We generally have respect for the law, and generally the law is fair (even if its application is not).

Third, we are a people who believe in opportunity. It is not equally available, and not everyone can grow up to be President, but Americans still believe in a nation where you can “make something of yourself.” We still believe, if only barely, that our children will be better off financially than we are.

Beth at Korean American History Society meetingHaving now had months to think it over, I have come up with a number of other answers, though all are the small kinds of things that do not make good answers in class. Being in a foreign country puts “the small things” in sharp relief.

We are the only nation that sets aside an entire national holiday to eat and watch professional sports together (Thanksgiving). When we watch sports, it is almost never soccer, the sport of choice everywhere else. We are one of the few nations that encourage small children to dress up as scary things and extort candy from neighbors. We are one of very few nations where in some parts of the country you can carry a concealed weapon in church just in case you have to defend yourself. South Koreans think the right for civilians to carry a gun exists “only in America”.

Beth and interpreter at Chung Nam University Americans allow everyone from the corner shop keeper to the President of the company to use our first names - and we often use theirs. We call our sporting events “World Championships” even if no other country is allowed to participate. We never, ever fly our flag lower than anyone else’s. We have very few citizenship responsibilities, and count on underpaid volunteers to defend us.

Perhaps most centrally, I wish I had told both audiences, “Being American means we are allowed to be deeply angry with our government, to protest freely, and to make changes in law or even the Constitution.  But we can also not care at all; apathy is American too.” Both the right to agitate and the right not to care are traditions from the American Revolution; we tend to forget that one third of the citizens did not care who won that war as long as they were left alone.

If you are inclined, write to me or leave a comment and tell me what you think makes Americans American. I think each of us would likely have a different answer and somehow that seems markedly American as well. What binds our nation together? How do we explain that to others? That is my job, and it is fascinating.

1 comment February 1, 2008


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