RPCV Gerry Krzic “We left Korea, but Korea never left us”

 

By Gerry Krzic who teaches at Ohio University and serves as the president of Friends of Korea. He was a PCV in Korea from 1977 to 1980. 
 Gerry Krzic teaches at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic
Gerry Krzic teaches at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic

 

Anyone who has spent time in Korea has probably heard of “jeong,” a concept characterized as a collective emotion of caring, love, attachment ― an unspoken bond difficult to define but evident when seen in action. Jeong is usually described in different forms such as jeong between friends (woojeong) and between mother and child (mojeong).

I would like to offer another form of jeong ― Peace Corps jeong ― permeating in a subset of American society. That is, Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Korea from 1966 to 1981.

I returned in 2013 for a one-week Revisit Korea Program sponsored by the Korea Foundation for former Peace Corps Volunteers.

At first I thought it might be like a high school reunion ― a nostalgic trip to days long gone. But what I experienced was different.

I attended presentations on modern Korean society, participated in cultural events, reunited with my former Korean coworkers, networked with fellow volunteers and revisited Daechang Middle School in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province, where I was a volunteer teacher in the late 1970s. It had been 35 years since my last time there.

 

 Gerry Krzic teaches at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic
Gerry Krzic visits a bookstore in 1977, above, which was replaced by a Lotteria in 2013. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic

 

I was amazed at the affection that the volunteers still had for Korea and the impact the experience had on their lives. I’ve returned for later revisits, and each time I saw the same phenomenon ― the enduring bond we have with Korea.

This led to me to wonder why the Peace Corps Volunteers have such a special relationship with Korea, even more so than my Peace Corps friends who had served in other countries.

I concluded it has to be Peace Corps jeong! But, where did it come from and what are its characteristics?

 

 Gerry Krzic teaches at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic
Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province, has grown considerably from 1977, above, to 2013, below. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic

 

We served during a period when Korea was emerging from a dependency on foreign aid and becoming a self-sustaining country. Every day we saw construction as the country was laying the foundation to become the advanced country it is today. Similarly, the volunteers, mostly in our 20s, were in an emerging state of selfhood, laying the foundation for our futures.

It was a transformational experience. On a professional level the impact was very visible for some ― academics who developed Korean studies programs in North American universities or diplomats in the U.S. Department of State. But for all, it had a personal transformation characterized in the comment: “It was an amazing experience. There’s me before the Peace Corps and me after the Peace Corps.”

Revisiting this chapter in our lives was a deeply emotional experience. Emotions, dormant for years, awoke as we reconnected with our former language teachers and staff and returned to our former worksites.

 

 Gerry Krzic teaches at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic
Gerry Krzic teaches in a classroom at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977, above, and returns in 2013, below. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic

 

Soon after arriving in Yecheon, I meandered the streets looking for familiar landmarks. Sadly, my favorite tea house and old boarding house had been replaced by new buildings. At Daechang Middle School, I met the current principal who told me that many former colleagues had passed away.

But an unexpected delight was meeting former students ― who were now teachers at the school. Tears welled up in my eyes as I recognized them. Together we browsed an old scrapbook I had brought. Each page brought a new story and new tears. I think the principal might have thought that was too much Peace Corps jeong on display!

 Gerry Krzic teaches at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic
Gerry Krzic with Daechang Middle School students in 1977, above, and 2013, below. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic

 

Together we spent the rest of the day touring Yecheon, meeting my old boarding house ajumoni who still lived in town, and taking new pictures that would match the same location as the old pictures in my scrapbook. I was enveloped in feelings of warmth and gratitude to the people of Yecheon who had taught me so much so long ago.

 

 Gerry Krzic teaches at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic
Gerry Krzic poses in front of the boarding house in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province, where he used to stay in 1977, left, and during a return to the same site in 2013. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic
 Gerry Krzic teaches at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic
Gerry Krzic reconnects in 2013 with his former boarding house host in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic

 

It showed the bond we formed with Korea has endured over our lifetime.

As one volunteer stated, “There is not a day that goes by when I am not reminded of something that happened then or about my experience.”

In fact, we are not described as “former” volunteers, but as “returned” volunteers, implying the experience never leaves us.

 

 Gerry Krzic teaches at Daechang Middle School in Yecheon County, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic
A street scene in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province, in 1977, above, and 2013, below. / Courtesy of Gerry Krzic

 

And we still feel a continued sense of service, which I see through Friends of Korea, an all-volunteer organization started as a Peace Corps Korea group but has now evolved to include Fulbright scholars and others interested in enhancing Korea-U.S. relations. Among its many activities, the organization promotes a “Giving Back Initiative” to contribute to the Korean American community, partners with the Korean Heritage Library at the University of Southern California to host the only Peace Corps digital archive in the U.S. and liaises with the Korea Foundation to organize the return trips.

Thanks to the Revisit Korea Program I was able to discover Peace Corps jeong. I am sure there are other forms floating out there. But I am certainly glad I have experienced the Peace Corps type.

 

3 Comments

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  • Thanks Gary–loved the duality of pictures. Your theme reflects some of my experiences in Seoul, Korea, during the calendar years 1968-69. I, too, loved my revisit. I had almost an immediate change in life direction when I returned home. I picked up a strong sense of the importance of family, so when I returned my family situation had changed. My only sibling had died and my dad nearly died and was on a year long recovery, maybe even longer before he may or may not work. So rather than pursue my doctoral wok as planned I returned to the University of Oregon as it was only two hours away from my parents. Ironically I had to take qualifying exams to be accepted during the first term. If I had known when I took my MA exams, they could have substituted for qualifying but I had said no, so my wife and I still took the risk of moving to Eugene, her getting work, and seeing if I could pass the exam. That decision changed my life path. The good news was that the youngest daughter in the house where I lived traveled to my home town and spent a year with my parents working on her English before going on to Central Washington State University, where I had been teaching to pursue a Master’s Degree.

    On the re-visit, my school no longer existed [the building was torn down even], nor the house where I lived with the Song family for two years [Now a 5 story building, though we had tea in what would have been the courtyard or our house.]. I ended up teaching intercultural communication as a primary area at two different universities. At the first conference in the speech communication field on intercultural communication, I chaired the model syllabus writing committee–could not have done that without my two years in Peace Corps.

    When I lived in Mt. Pleasant MI, another RPCV and I co-chaired the committee for our community to invite 5 Cambodian families [30 people] and help them accommodate to life in the US. Then another 40 came two years later. Again Peace Corps experience for both Joanie and me was vital to making it a success.

  • Thanks, Gary. I really like your “jeong” approach to our Peace Corps Korea experience. What I took with me when I departed in 1981 was a tremendous respect for Koreans’ work ethic and commitment to education, which I continue to believe was at the core of Korea’s development miracle. I went on to a 26-year career in the Foreign Service, with 11 overseas assignments, but never again lived so close to — as a part of — another culture. The greater depth of understanding that gave me about what it means to be a citizen in a developing country – economically and politically – served me very well when I was assigned to other developing countries, mostly in Africa. The last time I served in Ethiopia, 2012-2014, as Peace Corps country director, Korea had its own volunteers there, and we took the opportunity for some joint projects. Imagine my pride and sense of jeong!

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