Monday, January 12, 2015

Learning the Cultural Practices of South Korea

A semester in Korea left two midshipmen baffled in all the right ways. The following excerpts from the personal journals of Midshipmen 2/C Nate Mclauchlan and Ian Shaw highlight their four-month experience.

Hanboks are the traditional dress of Korea. The colorful gowns are still used for cultural events,
most notably the holiday of Chusok.

There was culture shock:

“I was warned about the extreme deference shown to elders here. I have read about it in many sources mentioning the deep Confucian values that prevail into contemporary times. But when I witnessed it first hand, I was at a loss. After a long day of a scavenger hunt all around Seoul, my group was on a subway ride back to the rendezvous point. Accompanying us were a couple of Seoul mates (Seoul natives who volunteer to help us foreigners enjoy our time here) who staffed the day’s activities. We were all abuzz, excitedly speaking of the day's happenings while also making plans for the night. Apparently it is good etiquette to be quiet in the subway, an older man let us know. From his seat (because elders sit before women) he violently waved a rolled up newspaper at one of the Koreans with us. Her reaction was silence and a gyration of movement which was intended to be a rapid series of bows. He went on waving and scolding her. She just took it. The criticism went on for a good two minutes. She apologized profusely and held her head down. All of us Americans quieted in awe. When I asked her later about it, she explained. I was angered. This man had the gall to embarrass a friend of mine and be so rude as to wave and point at her. But I was also frozen during the engagement. This was a culture shock.”

The Joint Security Area is the designated diplomatic location within the
Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel.

There was the Demilitarized Zone:

“From main center of Seoul to the southern side of the DMZ was an hour bus ride. Keeping in mind that 9.82 million of the 50.22 million South Koreans live in this spanning metropolis, the situation is just as perilous as that of Jerusalem and Palestine. In a conference room overlooking the DMZ and North Korea beyond, a ROK soldier told us not to worry, their missile interception system (he described it as similar to Israel’s Iron Dome) could shoot down anything the northerners sent our way. About an hour later, when speaking to a U.S. soldier attached to Camp Boniface (UNCOM), he pointed to the mountains a few miles north. 'See those? 80% of the North Korean artillery is just over that ridge, pointed right at Seoul. If they fired a consistent, max-capacity barrage for 8 minutes, Seoul would be flattened without sign of life.” Walking the streets of Seoul, one would never guess that desolation is only ever 8 minutes away. Subway stations are equipped with gas masks and sustenance supplies. So the people are not kept up at night, but the North is obviously a concern of officials running the city.”

There were Korean cadets:

“During a visit to the university track for a few laps, I was kept company by the drilling ROTC units on the infield. It is interesting to keep in mind that though these men volunteered to enter this program, they were required to serve anyway. When other male students cross the field and track as a sort of shortcut to the science building, they do not look at the uniformed men with curiosity but rather a chuckle or complete disregard. On a personal note, after a few laps one of the officers in charge threw me a smile and a thumbs up for my efforts. Quite possibly the most motivating experience since Plebe Summer Braveheart runs. Also, this was one of my first interactions with a foreign, allied military. Though small, I will not soon forget it.”

South Korea has 21 national parks in the country roughly the size of the state of Indiana.
The mountainous terrain is beautiful and littered with waterfalls.

There was the city seen from the mountains:

“Walking on the ridge along the old fortress wall, we reached our intended vista by 1200. The view was breathtaking, reminding me of the hike behind Yonsei campus earlier this semester. With snow on the ground and the wind howling in our ears, Seoul embodied a more arctic elvish city than it did in August, but Rivendell–esque nonetheless. The buildings sprawl, struggling for space as they challenge the littered mountains for land viability. Sprouting vertical at rapid pace and teeming with energy, Seoul appears to be a concrete chia pet watered by the dynamism of its citizenry.”

Immersion in the beautiful Republic of Korea was a professionally eye-opening and personally engaging experience. Midshipmenn 2/C Mclauchlan and Shaw are most grateful for their time spent on the peninsula and both hope to return in the future in and out of uniform.

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