By Jon Dunbar
A group of about 50 Peace Corps volunteers including their spouses and children enjoyed a week in Korea, revisiting the land they had lived in decades earlier on the invitation of Korea Foundation (KF).
Approximately 2,000 American Peace Corps volunteers were sent to Korea between 1966 and 1981. They provided development assistance primarily in English education in middle schools and universities, and health education and care, especially for patients suffering from tuberculosis and leprosy.
A total of 805 of the volunteers have returned to Korea in one of the Revisit programs held since 2008, according to KF Vice President Rhee Jong-kook.
The Peace Corps has operated in 143 countries, and no longer has a presence in 82 of them, including Korea, according to Christy Gavitt, a board member of Friends of Korea, a U.S.-based NGO founded by former volunteers who served in Korea. “Korea is the only country that does this type of revisit,” she said at a farewell dinner on Oct. 27. “I mention this to friends of mine and their jaws drop when they hear of this generosity.”
This year’s Revisit began welcoming the returning volunteers on Oct. 21. The assembled volunteers gathered at the Somerset Palace Hotel in downtown Seoul for an orientation and welcome dinner on Oct. 22, during which they passed a microphone around the room so each participant and their companions had a chance to introduce themselves.
Robert Peterson, who had spent 1972 to 1974 working at a health clinic in Muan, South Jeolla Province, referred to those years as “the defining moment of my life.”
“I’m totally astounded by what I can see so far,” said John Kocherzat, who had taught at Cheongju University in North Chungcheong Province from 1978 to 1979.
“We as Peace Corps volunteers got so much more out of being here than we were able to give,” said Ellen Alger, who had taught English at a couple of schools here in 1976.
She was in Korea with her husband James Alger, who she had met while volunteering in Korea. They were also celebrating their 45th anniversary.
Present among the participants were a handful of Peace Corps couples, people who had met while in the service or joined together. Some had even adopted Korean children. In the case of Bow and Ann Seltzer, when they left Korea in 1980, Ann was already eight months pregnant; she joked that when her baby was born, they put the kid in a “Made in Korea” shirt.
Most of the participants hadn’t returned to Korea since their volunteering days, but some had come back to Korea after their service. A few had gone into the diplomatic corps and been dispatched to Korea. Some even continued to live in Korea after all these decades.
Many of the participants shared their photos from their time volunteering in Korea. James Callahan, who was posted to a middle school in Jeju Island’s Seogwipo from 1971 to 1973, had photos to show of stone houses, grass-thatched roofs and shaman rituals from his service period. Ron Rezac, who had taught English at Seocheon Middle School in 1967 and 1968, shared his photos from that era where he went on a bike ride along the east coast of Korea.
The KF officials introduced the itinerary for the group, and two words, in particular, piqued the group’s attention: “chimaek,” a new term for fried chicken and beer that was unfamiliar to most participants, and “dabang,” an old-style cafe that brought back feelings of nostalgia among many of them.
Many of the participants took a couple of days to return to their service locations across the country. KF provided them with transportation, as well as a vehicle including a driver and a guide to help them find the traces of the communities they once were a part of.
One participant was surprised to find his own face in a museum exhibit about his town’s development history. Bow and Ann Seltzer, who had worked at an orphanage for mixed-race children in Incheon, knew that the facility was long gone, but they managed to visit Camp Market, a former U.S. Forces Korea facility in the area that has recently been transformed into a public park. There, they found a baseball diamond they remembered bringing some of the orphans to during their time working there.
Almost all who took part in this activity expressed astonishment at how much their once-familiar Korean hometowns had changed, and shared if any sights or faces were familiar.
“These advances are in part because of the noble sacrifice of your young days,” Rhee told them at the farewell dinner.
By the end of the program, the participants had bonded and gotten to know each other after their shared experiences.
The group watched a commemorative video showing highlights of the Revisit, enjoyed a meal including makgeolli, a popular alcoholic beverage many of them had enjoyed during their Peace Corps days, and then enjoyed a choral performance. After that, a couple of volunteers jumped on stage to entertain the participants with their own songs.
Donald Rogers, who had been stationed at a health center in Boseong, South Jeolla Province, from 1972 to 1974, presented two sad songs, “Tumengang” and “Mokpo.”
“They (Koreans) saw us through their difficulties,” he reminded the audience when introducing his selections.
After him, Kenneth Bowman, who had worked at Gwangcheon Middle School in Hongseong, South Chungcheong Province, took the stage. He started off by belting out “Gapdoli and Gapsuni,” a popular folk song released in 1973, the same year he arrived in Korea. After that, he introduced another popular song, getting most of the people in the room to sing along.
“One of my best memories of Korea, and I have a lot of good memories, was sitting in a small room, and I think there was drinking, and everyone had to sing a song,” he said. “Peace Corps volunteers know the way to get out of being put on the spot was to sing ‘Arirang.'”
He also expressed his thanks to Giles Ryan, a Peace Corps volunteer not present, who had published a collection of Korean folk songs in the early 1970s. “He gave generations of Peace Corps volunteers a helping hand by writing down popular Korean folk songs,” Bowman said.
The Peace Corps Korea volunteers sometimes hold reunions in the U.S. Their next Revisit to Korea may be held next fall. Visit friendsofkorea.net for more information.