"Peace" in Korea

2006/12/12 16:47

by Lynn Garber

    Lynn Garber, First Section Peace Corps Volunteer, arrived in Korea October 13, 1967, to teach the seventh grade girls (363 students) English at Chonan Girls' Middle School.  Lynn was raised in Washington, D.C. and spent some high school years in Bangkok where her father was with AID.  In 1966, she received her BA from the University of Colorado and in 1967 her MA from the University of Michigan.
    Although Lynn says that after several months in Korea, many Peace Corps Volunteers tend to lose sight of the amusement inherent in incidents, she recounts below sevveral experiences which have retained their humor for her.

    I had spent only three nights in Chonan living with Mrs. Chang, a wealthy widow, and her family.  Mrs. Chang had invited three of her women friends to chat and examine her new lodger (me) and, as I sat and listened to their conversation, I was considering myself lucky to understand one word in fifty.  I tried to look pleasant and I nodded my head at what I thought were appropriate times. 
    At last the evening came to an end withouts my having made a fool of myself.  But as the women were leaving the house, Mrs. Chang whispered in my ear the Korean equivalent of "Goodby and sleep peacefully," an expression I had never heard before.  I repeated it to her departing guests and was astonished to hear them break into gales of laughter.  Naturally, I assumed their amusement was a result of pronounciation.  It was--I had garbled the phrase so badly that it had emerged as "Goodby and die peacefully!"
    Have you noticed the tremendous loads, often live animals, that Koreans are able to pile behind them on their bicycles?  As I walk to and from school each day, I am amazed by the menagerie I see--everything from rabbits to goats and dogs.  But I am always most amused when I see a hariy black hog, sometimes of monumental proportions, trussed and draped across the back of a bicycle, blissfully drunk and unaware that he is on his way to market.  (Pigs, much as humans, dislike the indignity of being draped over a bicycle.  To make them more manageable, they are treated to some low-grade makoli--rice wine--and sometimes drink enough to pass out.)
    One day, just after passing such a scene, I heard a wild squeal and whirled

to see the following:  The man had left his bicycle supported by its kickstand while he went into a store.  Apparently, the hog hadn't drunk enough makoli, because his squirming and writhings sent the bicycle crashing to the ground.  And there I saw the hog--feet and rump in the air wiggling frantically and his snout planted firmly in the ground!  I imagine he was the first hog in Chonan to do a headstand.
  On May 14, Koreans observe Teachers' Day when students show special respect for their teachers.  After teaching two classes that morning, we women changed into hanbok (Korean dress), and as I had only a winter one (of considerably heavier silk than summer hanboks) I wore that.  We lined up outside on the athletic field:  1,569 junior and senior high school girls in formation facing forty teachers.  After a speech by the Principal, several students tepped forward to deliver more speeches.  It was hot in the sun, especially in my winter hanbok, and just when I though the speechmaking would go on forever, it ended.
  For the next hour and a half, we teachers sat in the shade under the portico as the girls presented skits, songs, and traditional dances.  By now it was afternoon, and I was eager for a cool drink and my lunch (cold rice and an egg).  But to my dismay, I discovered that we teachers were not to be dismissed so easily--we would have to perform first.
    We lined up in groups of three on the athletic field to compete against an equal number of students in a relay race.  Twice during the race we were to stop, once to put on or carry an extra articles of clothing (just what I needed!) and once to be give some noxious food, not to swallow but to carry in our mouths.  
  If nothing else, the race was colorful.  Through the men wore plain trousers and shirts, we women were gaty in our brightly-colored hanboks and our rubber gondola-shaped shoes.  At last my turn came--I ran with two other women who insisted on holding hands.  At our first stop, I was given a man's jacket to wear.  A fourth of the way around the track and I was in agony--my rubber shoes were at least two sizes too small, my skirt was tied too tightly, and I was sweltering!  At the second stop, I was force-fed some dok, a sticky confection made of rice.  I put as much as I could in my mouth, but the rest hung out and flopped from my nose to chin as I jogged around the track, so I promptedly bit it off.  As we gasped across the finish line, the students clapped and cheered mightily--they loved to see their teachers perform!  For ten minutes I couldn't speak, even to say how glad I was that it was over.
    Can you imagine your surprise if you were informed at the age of twenty-four that you didn't bathe properly?  I couldn't have been more offended when Miss Kwon pointed out my faults as I took my first bath with her in a public bath house.  To my chagrin, she proved to be right.  But first it was quite an experience just getting undressed, much less being taught how to bathe.  The locker room's wide assortment of females--from tiny babies to grandmothers--made me acutely self-concious by openly staring.  Undoubtedly, it was the first time a Western girl had used their bath, and they were further intrigued by my excess of what Korean women singularly lack--hips!  In the bathroom itself, the woemn were squatting on little wooden boards around the oval, tiled pool, and as I went in heads poooped up like popcorn.  Even after the novelty wore off for the adults, the children would wade across the pool of hot water and stand behind me, all eyes, as I tried to master the art of Korean bathing.
    In Korea, a person goes to the bath only once a week or so, and understandably she must do a good bit of scrubbing to clean off seven days' accumulation of dirt and grime.  She scrubs, washes, and rinses herself outside the pool, and only when she is clean may she enjoy the luxury of sitting and soaking in the hot water.
    After I'd washed my hair and body in the usual American way (which took perhaps twenty minutes) and said I was ready to go, Miss Kwon shot me a look of disbelief, meaning "You can't possibly be clean."  So I decided that if I were to live with Koreans and use their public baths, I had better learn at least the rudiments.
    First, one must lather all over, then rinse off in  the welcome hot wather.
  (During the winter, my visits to the public bath were usually the only times I ever felt completely warm--blissfully so!)  Apparently this first lathering serves to wash off the heaviest dirt and loosen the underlying accumulation.  The next step is to scrub with a little damp cloth bag (I use a folded washcloth) with short, firm motions, beginning at the neck.  I am always amazed at the rolls of dirt and dead skin that come off.  One must be very thorough, not leaving any section of exposed skin unscrubbed.  This scrubbing process can be repeated indefintely andd can take an incredibly long time, but in a pinch I've managed to complete it in twenty minutes.
    Undoubtedly, the biggest attraction to scrubbing is the institution of "I'll scrub your back if you'll scrub mine."  It makes no difference that I may not know the person next to me.  Oh, the ecstasy of a good back scrub and the hot water sloshing over afterwards!  Finally, I lather all over again and rinse off, having spent only one and a half hours in all, a little short of average. 
    After bathing in this manner for four months, I went with three other female Peace Corps Volunteers to Onyang, a hot springs resort, where we rented a private room at a bath house.  I had just washed my hair and was settling down for a good lather when the other girls got out of the water, said they were finished, and walked out to dress.  I couldn't believe it.  How could they possibly be clean after only fifteen minutes?  So I had to wash in double quick time while they waited.  These Americans--always in a hurry!

(Women's News, September 1968)