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Feel the ‘Positive Power’ of Korea  Korean Studies Workshop for American Educators  Thirty-six educators from various places in America, such as New York, Michigan and Kentucky, participated in the Korea Foundation’s education program for foreign educators from July 7-19, 2011. By traveling across Korea, from the ancient city of Gyeongju to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), they were given the chance to deepen their knowledge about the nation’s history and culture.  O Reung: Five tombs of the Silla Kingdom

Since my return from South Korea last week, friends and family have been calling to say: “How was it? Tell me all about it!” I tell them the trip was absolutely fabulous, but I am at a loss as to where to begin telling them about it. This is because the experience was so complex. Unlike a vacation to a foreign country where tourist sites are visited and foods tasted, this journey was a study trip and was therefore an organized, deliberate and sustained program to educate participants about the history and culture of Korea. Consequently, I was required to develop a research agenda and to complete a list of required readings before arriving in Korea. These efforts made me feel as though I had learned a vast amount about Korea; however, I know now that I had only gained “book learning.” By actually being in Korea, I gained not only greater knowledge but also greater understanding about modern-day Koreans and the values and goals they hold for themselves and their nation in today’s international community.

In Search of Korean People’s Solidarity

I’ll admit my first few days in Korea were bewildering. This was my first experience in Asia and first international study program. Information came at me from all directions, and at first, it was a swirl of random facts, thoughts, sights, and sounds. We moved around in time and space from the ancient to the modern, and keeping track of new names and places was hard. But gradually a picture formed, helped by a few key epiphanies on my part.

The first came as my group stood with our lecturer, Dr. Mark Peterson of Brigham Young University, at the archaeological site of Najeong in Gyeongju to learn the story of the first king of the Silla. Dr. Peterson explained that the southeast region of the peninsula was governed by a tribal confederation until those eight tribes convened to choose their first king, establishing the Silla Kingdom that would go on to unify Korea for the first time. He explained that of those eight tribes, five held names that have persevered as the majority of family names found in Korea today. When I linked these observations to the idea that Korea has been remarkably stable during its 2,000 years or so, having been ruled by only three dynasties, I realized how unified Korea is as a people and a nation. Indeed, in my eyes, Korea is practically one big extended family, all united by a common ancestry and heritage. To a citizen of the United States, this is a revelatory idea that explains much about the culture and values of the Korean people today. To me, Koreans have a strong sense of national purpose and unity that derives from this common heritage, and for me that unity explains Korea’s economic and political successes of today.

Understanding Confucianism

Workshop participant Susan Cimburek and Lecturer Mark Peterson (Brigham Young University) at Bulguk Temple Relatedly is the clearer understanding I now have of Confucianism. Not only do I have a stronger grasp of the principles of Confucianism and its historical development in Korea, but I also have a better sense of how Confucianism is practiced in everyday life, even today. My second epiphany was around this subject and came to me when we visited O Reung, or the Five Tombs, again with Dr. Peterson as our guide. After touring the tombs, we entered a Confucian shrine where the link between the tombs and ancestor worship became clear to me. In discussions with Dr. Peterson, I came to understand that rituals are performed at the site, to this day, by individuals who trace their family line back to the kings and queens buried in the adjacent tombs. I further understood that although most Koreans don’t trace their lineage directly to royalty, Koreans perform grave-side ceremonies on holidays, and that these are simply smaller, more private versions of the elaborate ceremonies held in the royal shrines. I was struck once again by the reverence and loyalty given to ancestral heritage and the key role that it plays in shaping Korea’s culture today.

Positive Will Power

My third epiphany was to what extent the division of Korea represents a true tragedy. When I considered the ancient roots of Korea, the stability it experienced up until the 20th century, and the strong sense of family and unity that lays the foundation for Korean culture, the agony that the division causes became clear to me. While our visit to the DMZ drove home the brutal reality of this for me, what gave it meaning to me was my experiences with those we met within Korea’s educational system, including the high schools students at Daeil, the graduate students at Korea University, and their mentors, the university faculty.

Embodied within this spectrum of generations is a common thread of dedication to the future. I saw this in the faculty who so kindly gave us their time and knowledge in the name of Korea’s future. I saw this in the graduate students who were ever optimistic, respectful, and untiring in their work on the program’s behalf. Finally, in the young I met at Daeil Foreign Language High School, I came to know a school full of hard-working, energetic, and idealistic teenagers who are bursting to break out and make things happen for Korea – and the world – in innovative, very modern ways. When asked, they all said, yes, Korea must be reunified. Their strong belief in reunification was clearly grounded in their history as a people that I have been discussing. Nonetheless, they were circumspect in their assessments about the political, social, and economic challenges of reunification, exemplifying the realism and hard work that characterizes modern Korea in its approach to attaining its goals.

This blend of idealism with realism, and optimism with determination, is my major take-away from this experience. I have gained not only better knowledge about Korean history and culture, but perhaps more importantly, better understanding about Korea as a people and a nation in the 21st century, and I remain thankful and honored to have participated in this program. It truly was an experience of a lifetime.

Susan Cimburek, Social Studies Teacher
George C. Marshall High School, Fairfax, Virginia, USA

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