WELCOME TO SEOUL
My first real travel outside of the United States was a trip through Mexico to Guatemala in 1975. Greeting indigenous people dressed in huipils walking the shores of Lake Atitlan, going to the market in Solala, sleeping in a hammock near the ancient pyramids in Tikal, brought me to a world radically different from my Leave It to Beaver childhood in suburban New Jersey—and delightfully so!
A year-long trip around the world in 1978-79—including five months in India— showed me even more graphically how differently people organized their lives and cultures and how rich it felt to step briefly into other shoes (and sarongs). Back then, travel was mostly buses and trains and an occasional flight, arriving and searching out a place to stay with no advance reservations, and a great deal of gesturing without English as a widely spoken language.
Now I step off the plane in Seoul, Korea, and see all the familiar icons of an increasingly homogenous world culture. A big billboard with a picture of Pierce Brosnan welcomes me to the local casino. When I step out the gates and my host is nowhere in sight, I get on wireless e-mail to find out where she is. Soldiers with machine guns patrol the concourse and people walk by cradling their Starbucks coffee.
My ride arrives and we drive for two and a half-hours on traffic-jammed freeways to get to a mall to stock me up on Kellogs cereal, Santa Cruz organic juice and Dannon Yogurts. On the way to Catholic University where I’ll be staying, we pass the Baskin Robbins, 7-11’s, KFC’s, Burger Kings and the whole arsenal of imported Western stuff that has become so commonplace that it barely deserves commentary. Having watched this spread in the past 20 years of travel, I’ve moved from outrage to despair to reluctant acceptance—it simply is the truth of today’s world and no comments from me are going to stop it. And I remember thinking, as I stood in a square in Gdansk last Spring reading about Hitler’s invasion of Poland, that compared with soldiers and tanks coming through your streets, a bad hamburger is not going to cause that much harm.
Still, though. While I enjoy the ease and comfort of getting picked up in a car at the airport and taken to my room with the usual conveniences and Wireless internet, I do miss the sense that I’ve arrived somewhere else. That feeling of learning a new etiquette, hearing new sounds, smelling new smells, walking the streets with eyes open wide and all systems alert to the next moment of magic or challenge. Now I eat dinner with my English-speaking host and compare notes about the state of teaching in Korea, talk about salaries, the economy, technologies and the chit-chat of the Orff music world. I latch on to tiny tidbits of difference, now measure in inches instead of miles—husbands and wives not legally allowed to work in the same place, daughters now preferred over sons, rivalry with the Japanese and the sense that Korea is catching up in the arena of sports, cars, business, the arts.
When talking about education, my host said that high school kids might go to school from 7:30 to 5:00, then go on to after-school programs and continue working and studying until 2:00 am!! While that will look good on math scores and we will admire the knowledge and discipline of the now archetypal Asian student, it feels like if American kids are in a Race to Nowhere, their Asian counterparts (and Asian-Americans) are in a constant marathon! I can’t help but feel this will take its toll. Where is the time for the kids to climb a tree, skip stones, look up at the clouds and dream? Where is the time for the teenagers to sit around strumming guitars and whispering their dreams to each other? Where is the balance between admirable discipline and creative leisure?
Tomorrow I begin teaching my five-day workshop and hope to give some clues.