Reunited with Korea

- John Finn, RPCV

In October, while seated in a restaurant in Pusan, (South) Korea, with ten of my former students whom I had first encountered in a middle school classroom in 1970, I was overwhelmed by a flood of feelings, including the recognition that I had been lucky to have been a volunteer in Korea. Those years in the Peace Corps formed the central experience of my early adult life, and after almost four decades, I was reliving those meaningful memories as a result of an invitation extended by the Korean government.

Peace Corps maintained programs in Korea for 15 years (from 1966 to 1981), and in April of this year the Korea Society recognized the contributions of the more than 1,600 volunteers who had served there by giving Peace Corps an award at the Society’s annual dinner in New York. That event prompted the Korean ambassador to the United States to suggest that the Korean government host a series of reunions for former volunteers, and as a result of his initiative, in October the Korean government hosted 45 former volunteers (accompanied in some cases by spouses) in a return to Seoul. As far as is known, it was the first time in Peace Corps’ history that a host country had made such a generous gesture.

The six-day official program included visits to our original sites, luncheons and dinners sponsored by the Korean government, an introduction to Korea’s version of the Peace Corps, tours in Seoul, and in an exciting coincidence, a formal reception at the official residence of the U.S. ambassador. What made this moment so momentous was that our reunion coincided with the arrival of a new U.S. ambassador to Korea – Kathleen Stephens – the first woman to serve in that post, the first ambassador to speak Korean, and the first former Peace Corps Korea volunteer to represent our country there. It was thrilling to see the impact of her appointment – the press covered her every move, her former students, colleagues and friends were the subjects of countless interviews, and Koreans recognized her on the street. All the good will and warm feeling we former volunteers felt for Korea and that Koreans felt for us was in a dramatically symbolic way embodied in the presence of Ambassador Stephens.

On a personal level this trip was a chance for me to re-connect with Peace Corps Korea friends and staff, former colleagues and former students. It had been 21 years since I had last visited Korea, and over these past years I was curious about the dynamic and dramatic developmental changes in that country. It would also represent a chance for me to introduce Art Desuyo, my companion for the last 28 years who is now my spouse. In a 2003 article for this newsletter I predicted that I would have the need to be more forthcoming about myself should I return to Korea, and the reunion proved to be both opportunity and challenge.

I was eager to learn about the changing atmosphere for queer Koreans, and in a couple of evening forays in Seoul, we discovered a vibrant nightlife. I further wondered how Koreans would receive the news that at the age of 60 I still had no wife or kids. Art’s presence by my side was never questioned, but I hungered for the opportunity to discuss this important personal part of my being. Aside from a few special, satisfying private moments – on several occasions my former students told me that they were part of a changed Korea which was becoming a more accepting and understanding society – I was silent about my gay identity. But then an intriguing chance presented itself.

A former student of mine who is now a professor invited me to speak before his class on the topic of Volunteerism – with emphasis on what might be termed “open-minded curiosity.” So I spoke of my Peace Corps days and then talked about the broadening value of such an experience. In preparing for this presentation, I had read in an English-language newspaper article about the sad suicide of a 23-year-old Korean actor/model that had come out the year before. I used this article, which I brought into the classroom as a kind of visual aid, to venture into the world of tolerance and acceptance. I started with the case of Proposition 8 on the November ballot in California ballot. I explained how in 1948 the California Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage to people of different races. Then I pointed out that in 2008 the California Supreme Court once again made a dramatic ruling about same-sex marriage. Finally I talked more broadly about gay/lesbian rights. It was at this moment that I tried to find within myself the courage to make a personal declaration in front of these students, but I chose not to. Even after the passage of so many years, I still felt a cross-cultural distance between my desire to be direct and the demands of a Korean culture that lives by more subtle approaches.

The governmental embrace of our Peace Corps past was sincere and sincerely appreciated. We volunteers had made modest contributions to the extraordinary development of this formerly impoverished country, and we were proud to be so warmly recognized. The LGBT side of me recognizes that it will take longer for a similar social embrace.

The author can be contacted at Johnnfinn@aol.com

From Ghana to Afghanistan: Tevas to Combat Boots

- Jess Reath, RPCV

On September 11, 2001, I was in Ghana. I remember sitting down to a dinner of yam and stew and turning on Volta Star Radio (the Star of Volta!). I had arrived at school that morning to find out that the government had declared the day a holiday and, therefore, there were no classes. I was told that if I listened to local radio (broadcast in English at 6am and 6pm), I would hear announcements like that.

I had arrived in Ghana three months earlier; on the 40th anniversary of the first Peace Corps volunteers’ arrival. Peace Corps had enjoyed 40 uninterrupted years of service and I was there to serve as a secondary education math teacher. I completed my training and officially swore-in as a PCV on August 25 so I had only been at my site for about 2 weeks. My two years of Tevas™, long skirts, head scarves, and some notion of trying to make a difference had just begun.

So I sat down with my yam and stew and turned on Volta Star. I don’t remember how long it took me to realize what was happening.

Fast-forward 7 years to September 11, 2008. Again, I was in a far off land with some notion of trying to make a difference. Only this time, I was in the middle of a war zone, a war zone that was created as a result of the events of September 11, 2001. The Tevas™and long skirts had been replaced by desert-tan combat boots and an Advanced Combat Uniform.

When I volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps I expected less-than-optimum living conditions, hard work and a lot of satisfaction. When I volunteered to work in Afghanistan I pretty much expected the same thing.

I am a civil engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE); the agency heading the U.S. contingent of the coalition-led rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan. I’m a civilian so Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell does not apply to me (it was something I looked into before accepting a job with the Department of Defense (DoD) and it took me four hilarious phone calls to get an answer. And since I’m a civilian, I can not be deployed involuntarily. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan require large numbers of military personnel so the DoD has asked civilians to volunteer for assignments in these areas. Assignments typically last six or twelve months and our jobs at home are held for us while we’re away.

I knew that I’d be stationed on a military base and that I would not be working directly with the locals as I had in the Peace Corps. But I assumed that I’d find a way to get out into the community and do some “extra-curricular” projects. I could not have been more wrong. There is no going out into the community. There’s no going out at all. If I leave the base I’m wearing body armor, a Kevlar helmet and I’m riding in an armored vehicle with a shooter. The only interaction I have with Afghans is the guys who clean our compound and the construction contractors who build our projects. I have yet to meet an Afghan woman or child.

The projects I’m working on are border police stations, roads and a national police medical facility; all along the border with Pakistan. Not exactly what I imagined myself doing. I had visions of schools, community water wells, women’s health clinics…”Peace Corps” type things.

The border of Pakistan is not the friendliest of places. Consequently, we almost never get to go there to see the construction. We have local nationals who take pictures and the contractors send us pictures and, somehow, we get the job done.

The work I do here might not bear resemblance to the work I did in the Peace Corps but there are several things about being here that are similar. First, work here can be very frustrating. It’s not easy trying to teach algebra to students who barely know how to do long division and it’s not easy trying to manage a construction project you’ve never seen. Due to security issues, communications issues, etc., things don’t always happen on our time-line. Sound familiar?

Second, there’s the ever-constant question of sustainability. Will the school maintain this library I just built? Will the Afghan National Army maintain this medical facility? Or will they both fall into states of disrepair? Only now we’re not dealing with projects that cost a few hundred or thousand dollars; we’re talking millions. The world is watching and people want fast results. It’s easy to show a nice, shiny, new facility and say we’ve done something. But if they don’t have the means or the knowledge to use or maintain it, have we really accomplished our goal?

As Peace Corps Volunteers we know the value in “teaching a man to fish” as opposed to “giving a man a fish.” I think there needs to be more teaching going on here. But teaching doesn’t make good glossy photos for status reports.

But despite the frustrations, what we’re doing here is laying the ground work for stability in a country that hasn’t seen peace or stability for a long time. Today, two men on a motorbike threw acid on six Afghan girls walking to school, hospitalizing two of the girls with serious burns and leaving them blind. The family had not received any threats not to send their girls to school, but now they are considering keeping the girls at home until security is stabilized.

We take education, and access to it, for granted. Teaching in Ghana showed me how valuable education is…especially to those who can’t afford it and are suffering because of that. In Afghanistan, girls were not allowed to go to school during Taliban rule. Now, even though the Taliban has been deposed, girls still face threats and violence for attempting to go to school.

Women’s centers and schools and community projects might seem more rewarding; but without the infrastructure needed to maintain safety and security, those projects are worthless.

In the U.S. we complain about potholes in the road. I recently returned to Ghana (on my R&R from Afghanistan…and I ate lots of yam and stew) and found little road improvement (more like a little road in between potholes). In fact, very little had changed at all, except that everyone now has a cell phone. Still no toilet though. But there the potholes aren’t caused by IEDs.

Roads in Afghanistan are few. Building roads is a major contributor to security. Hard-surfaced roads make it much more difficult to plant IEDs. Roads allow people freedom to move from one place to another, to work and school and food.

Mountains are moved one rock at a time. Several of my former students are now attending university (at my expense). Most of my former students did not progress beyond secondary school. Most probably still can’t do long division, but a few are earning post-secondary degrees in mathematics and statistics and natural resource management. To me, that’s success.

The Peace Corps was active in Afghanistan from 1962 until 1979, when the Soviets invaded. My goal is to see the Peace Corps return to Afghanistan. That can only happen when a satisfactory level of safety and security has been attained. Hopefully, I’m helping to contribute to that, one rock at a time.

[NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and, in no way, represent the views of the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the United States government.]

Jess Reath can be contacted at jdrst16@yahoo.com

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