Hagwon? I hardly know won!

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State of the Union January 26, 2011

I just finished watching President Obama’s second State of the Union address in which he mentioned South Korea four times. The only other country he mentioned as many times was China. This says to me that Mr. Obama takes South Korea very seriously. And why shouldn’t he? Not only are they a freshly minted economic powerhouse, but they got themselves to this point in just 60 years.

Seoul 1953

At the end of the Korean War, South Korea didn’t look terribly different from modern day Afghanistan. It was a mountainous, war torn place. Not just the Korean War’s effects but the recent Japanese occupancy left the country burnt, bombed, depopulated and undereducated.

In just three generations, they have picked themselves up and built what is arguably the best education system in the world. They have started companies like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG. They’ve taught an entire generation of students the English language. All this, while the North looms above making progress difficult.

The key to this success is South Korea’s diligent investment in education. The best educated students in the world are here in South Korea. These kids wake up, go to school, go to hagwons and then go home and do homework and then go to bed to repeat. They go to school every other Saturday and their summer vacation is one month long, a vacation that they spend at English or science camp. This is a people who do not mess around when it comes to school.

What a difference 57 years makes

If they can do all this, we can build a better America. South Korea is an example to the world for self improvement. They have a successful blue print of how to build a vibrant nation. America prides itself on a can do attitude. There is not a more can do nation on Earth than South Korea.


Sweet Home South Korea, Lord I’m Comin’ Home to You October 18, 2010

When you move to a country that’s the size of Indiana, getting stamps on your passport becomes much easier. Case and point, I got to go to Japan. Living in Ohio on a bookstore salary, a weekend getaway includes Lexington, Indianapolis, or Columbus. Thanks to the Korean holiday of Cheusok, I spent three days between Osaka and Kyoto.

Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, is second only to Rome for most World Heritage Sites in a single city. For any of you with art history degrees, I don’t have to tell you how rad this is. For the rest of you, picture, I don’t know, Lady Gaga wearing the Ug Boots or whatever you kids are into now a days. Bonus: I got to meet up with my cousin Craig who just happens to have lived in the city and speaks fluent Japanese.

My day in Kyoto was spent jetting around from temple to temple and restaurant to restaurant via rented bikes with Craig as our guide. I am so much happier when there are wheels below me. I’d prefer eight, but I’ll settle for two any day. Poor Doug however, has not ridden a bike since, well, since I’ve known him and we met when he was 14. So, it’s been a while. He was not nearly as joyous, but felt far more accomplished when all was said and done.

Kyoto is a beautiful city that has gone to great lengths to preserve its integrity against the crushing modernity that has swallowed and now makes up Osaka. There is a height limit on the buildings so you can still catch glimpses of the mountains. The architecture, my God the architecture. Coming from Seoul where the exteriors of building looks shockingly like the interior of buildings, Kyoto was a breath of old, traditional air.

Day two was spent meandering through Osaka’s shopping district. Let me be clear, Japan is the single most expensive place I’ve ever been to. There are 85 yen to the dollar. I saw nothing for under 100 yen. Not one thing. I wasn’t there for the shopping though. I was there for the experience of it. I didn’t bring back many souvenirs, but lots of memories. Most of all a feeling of accomplishment. Just eight months ago I was working two jobs, struggling to pay my rent, asking for parental help every time a medical bill creeped up. Now, I can afford to go to Japan for a few days, all with my very own money.

Osaka was very much my style: big and bold and funny. I never grow weary of things that are typically small represented by things that are huge and made of fiberglass, and Osaka provided. Osaka’s mascot is Billikin, the God of things as they ought to be, and that sucker was everywhere. He looks a lot like a Buddha but with a pointier head and the bottoms of his feet sticking out. Scratching his feet brings good luck. I took a picture with every single one I saw.

The food in Japan is amazing. I like Korean food just fine, but I could eat Japanese food everyday and it would never get old. The Japanese have had a history that allows them to develop culinary, architectural, and artistic traditions that are sophisticated and rich. Think of Japan as France and Italy combined. My beloved Korea on the other hand, is a lot like Poland. It’s spent so much of its history fighting off invaders (including the Japanese thank you very much) that survival has been a bigger focus that fanciful food and buildings.

The Koreans are just now reaching the point of continuous stability in which they can choose to foster these qualities. I think that they will and very successfully. The Japanese may have more creativity, but the Koreans are determined. I love them for that. As an art history major I value artistic traditions in a culture, but as me, as myself, as the person who has gotten me this far through this much fire, above all, I value determination and persistence. If the Koreans decide to develop an artistic legacy, they will because once their minds are set on something there is simply no stopping them.

My favorite thing that this trip gave me was a feeling of coming home and that home was to Korea. Beautiful, mountainous, spicy, hard-working, stubborn Korea.


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