Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The arrival of the Peace Corps in Korea, 1966

For my latest Korea Times article, I wrote about the decision to send Peace Corps Volunteers to Korea, their training in Hawaii, and their arrival in Korea in September 1966.

(From the Korea Times, September 14, 1966)

The fourth-last paragraph originally had other material in it, followed by two more paragraphs that I cut due to space and tone:

Two days later, 98 members of the K-1 group arrived in Korea. Upon arrival they attended an orientation program offered by the American embassy in Seoul where “they heard lectures on Korea and Korea-US relations given by Embassy and USOM people.” While it’s not clear how these were received, a year later “K-3” member Bruce Cumings, now a well-known historian, attended a similar orientation during which the speakers largely “misjudged their audience, mentioned goals for Peace Corps Korea which they themselves dreamed up, and presented talks distinguished solely by their irrelevancy.” 
On the day of their arrival, the Dong-A Ilbo, worried about the difficulties the volunteers might face in adapting to Korea, suggested that Koreans should do their “best for the foreign guests by giving careful and hospitable treatment.” 
Not everyone took the newspaper’s advice. During their orientation, three Peace Corps Volunteers decided to lodge at an inn downtown “to get used to Korean style housing accommodations,” but instead grew accustomed to being without money after thieves stole their wallets.

Almost a year ago I uploaded an index of links to the Peace Corps newsletters published between (1966 and 1981) digitally archived at the University of Southern California, but it seems the USC Digital library moved stuff around... or something... and none of the links below seem to work. I'd be annoyed if not for the Wayback Machine, which has the post archived here.

On the topic of the Peace Corps, a book titled Peace Corps Volunteers and the Making of Korean Studies in the United States was published last year and has interesting contributions by Seung-kyung Kim, Michael Robinson, Don Baker, Edward J. Baker, Donald N. Clark, Carter J. Eckert, Bruce Fulton, Laurel Kendall, Linda Lewis, Edward J. Shultz, Okpyo Moon, Clark W. Sorensen, and Kathleen Stephens. 

(Clark Sorensen is the head of the Korea program at the University of Washington, and I've had people swear to me that he was a Peace Corps Volunteer - he wasn't - but his participation in this volume will likely not disabuse people of that notion.) 

Lastly, here is a photo essay published in Shin Donga in January 1967 which profiles Stephanie Walmsley, a PCV who was teaching English at a girls' middle and high school in Yeongdong-gun, Chungcheongbuk-do.


Yule said...

My parents were Peace Corps Volunteers in approximately that era in Malaysia.

One of the perks of being a PCV in those days was a free round-the-world ticket. As far as I understand, you could make as many stops on the way home as you wanted in a 30-day or whatever period, anywhere along the airline's network, the traveler being responsible for the visas but never having to buy separate tickets.

My mother was doing this in about late 1969 or 1970 after finishing one of her terms in Malaysia. One of the stops dropped her right into Kimpo Airport. She stayed around a few days. (My father did some of this sort of travel, too, but never came to Korea.)

What these Peace Corps travelers would usually do is seek out the local Peace Corps office for an immediate network of possible assistance, travel advice, insider info on what was going on in the country and with the Peace Corps therein specifically, and sympathetic company.

These PCVs also of course didn't have much money given that tended to be recent college graduates and the Peace Corps itself paid them minimal wages. But the round-the-world tickets plus the assistance network via the Peace Corps offices were a way to travel on the cheap, and they did it.

What my mother mainly remembers about the Korea visit is an unfortunately negative incident in which she asked a taxi man to take her to a reasonably priced hotel with English-speaking staff, which he did. On arrival, someone took her shoes and they immediately and began showing her around. The price ended up being too high, higher than she expected, or there was some other problem, and she (my mother, in her early twenties) wanted to leave and find another place. These proprietors refused to give her back her shoes -- which had been taken on arrival and were out of view -- saying she had already agreed to stay there!

As travel mishaps go, this is not the world's worst. But having your shoes held hostage while it's cold outside is a unique kind of turn of events for the worse, in effect making it a kind of robbery, paying a lot higher than you want to under duress. Enough to make a solo female solo traveler feel vulnerable, even one who had some years in Malaysia under her belt.

Instead of submitting to this implied shoe-blackmail and spend more than she'd planned or could afford on a PCV salary (which were very low), she created a scene and somehow attracted the attention of a police officer nearby, who happened to speak English and sorted it out, forced the small hotel to give her back her shoes. If the hotel people were being bullies, the policeman was the bigger bully and they submitted.

This is an unfortunately negative, but powerful, memory, and was current in her mind even decades later when the topic of South Korea came up.

The other main thing she remembers about the ca.1969 visit was conversations with some Peace Corps people hanging around the HQ in Seoul, chatting about this and that. "What's South Korea like?" The answer was that there was a chasm between "Seoul" and "Non-Seoul." She remembers hearing views to the effect that these b.1940s PCVs all felt that Korea ca.1970 was "really two different countries." They made a point of it, at least that's the impression my mother carried with all many years, and despite another brief visit decades later, I expect she still feels that way, because impressions tend to stick. I don't know that she visited much of "Non-Seoul" in that visit a half-century ago, but all these other reliable PCVs hanging around HQ for one reason or another all knew it.

The HQ people also listed some of the negative things about the "Non-Seoul" side as they'd heard or experienced it. There were several current stories about PCVs sore about Korean families refusing marriages on racial grounds.

That's about all I remember.

If the Peace Corps' first arrival in Korea was Sept 1966, this experience would be just a few years later.

(from Peter J.)

Yule said...

A brief follow-up:

I sometimes wonder when that actual-and-or-perceived chasm between Seoul and Non-Seoul closed.

What I mean is: I don't think that similar conversations between similar people, flashed forward into our present -- b.1990s Americans in Korea talking about ca.2020 South Korea in general to a passer-through of the same background -- would go in that direction so much, would push the idea of Seoul vs. Non-Seoul as effectively different countries. Not enough to leave someone with such a strong impression, anyway.

Obviously these things are gradual. Was a "Seoul vs. Non-Seoul chasm" still true even in 1990? 2000?