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.

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