Apart from the occasional story about North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, the Koreas don’t often make headlines. Yet South Korea is precisely where Charleston resident Jo Anne Valentine Simson accepted a teaching position. For two years, Simson taught biology on American military bases in the Republic of South Korea, then returned home to write about her experience.
Her book, Korea, Are You at Peace?, is aptly named on many levels since it gives a nod to the tense political tinderbox between North and South. But the book quickly explains that the expression “Are you at peace?” is actually standard Korean greeting. Stemming perhaps from Buddhist roots, “Annyong haseyo?” is a polite hello, similar to the American “How are you?” or “What’s up?” There is both irony and poignancy in the fact that the greeting “Are you at peace?” peppers daily interactions among citizens of whom peace has eluded for generations. Korea has long been a pawn in the global chess match between militant East and West superpowers.
Simson herself is remarkable. For a retired biomedical scientist in her 60s to take a teaching position in the Far East is one thing. But for her to seize the opportunity to dive into a complex culture with an even more complex language is laudable. Many Americans in military installations around the world don’t even bother to go off-base much if at all. They prefer the comfort of the familiar (movie theaters, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, and the BX, which is the military equivalent of Walmart).
Simson arms herself with translation dictionaries, rents apartments off-base, buys used cars, and navigates maddeningly erratic and unmarked roads. When an aggressive Korean bus driver tries to run her off the road, rather than tremble like a shrinking violet, Simson flips him the bird. She journeys into the mountainous countryside, watches the sun rise over the quilt work of burning rice fields, visits ancient Buddhist temples, and marvels at colorful shamanistic dances. She befriends a local shopkeeper whose husband may or may not have a secret family on the side. She gobbles down kimchi and tries fried silkworms.
In other words, this lady has nerve.
Yet the charm of her book lies in her balanced observations and astute sensitivities. Even when rightfully flipping off a maniacal bus driver, she recognizes how her actions aren’t helping to correct the country’s general hostility towards foreigners. When her car floods and dies in the midst of a torrential monsoon, she has the presence of mind to rejoice that at least the water isn’t the “liquid cholera” of a century before and manages to hitch a ride back to base.
South Korea is a country of layered complexity. On the seamier side, Simson describes the casual and even outright mistreatment of women, sleazy bars with Russian strippers, and clogged city roads with stubborn auto standoffs. Yet there are attributes, such as respect for elders (with the caveat that elder women must wait on elder men), or the fact that Koreans waste nothing. Recycling is an art. No patch of land goes untended. Corn rows rise between apartment buildings. Urban doorways are frames for squash vines. A lawn with nothing edible is sacrilege. Sidewalks display brilliant red peppers drying in the sun. Fermenting crockery pots of kimchi adorn patios and rooftops.
Simson visits the 2.5-mile wide DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) at the 38th parallel, a guarded corridor dividing North from South, riddled with dank, dark tunnels dug surreptitiously by North Koreans. The tension is palpable as South Korean soldiers take on taekwondo stances to intimidate their Northern foes. Yet this dedicated no-man’s-land is a blessing for wildlife — a sanctuary teeming with Manchurian cranes and harboring the endangered Asiatic black bear. The fact that such a political quagmire could by default benefit endangered species speaks to the hidden blessings of a shaky truce.
Although the book often reads more like a diary or guide than a narrative, Simson deserves huge credit for her impartiality. Rather than refract her observations through a Western lens, she records her experiences meticulously, taking in sights, sounds, colors, customs, and rhythms of a country vastly different from our own, a country that, in her words, does not deserve the “intellectual neglect of Western culture.”
This book is an excellent read for anyone remotely considering traveling to South Korea. Maybe it’s time we all added the Republic of Korea to our bucket list.
To pick up a copy, visit bookstore.abbottpress.com.