I arrived at Incheon Airport and walked through the sliding doors that I’d seen in so many Korean dramas! There they were -- all the people waiting for family and friends and business associates. I paused a little too long to take it in while looking for someone holding the sign that I’d seen in the orientation papers that had been emailed to me. No one - so I walked to door #7 and found conference attendees who’d just arrived from Australia and the Philippines and a very handsome and helpful staffer from the conference. As I walked out the door to the bus, I was enveloped by a moist embrace from the hot and humid weather-- just as promised! We got on the bus to Kyong Gi University in Suwon, where we’d be staying, and headed across the looooonnnng Incheon Bridge. (When I was leaving, exhausted from the exciting week, I would amazingly take three (3!) short naps and still not finish crossing that bridge!)
Conference participants were housed in the beautiful Dream Tower of Kyong Gi University. I was so impressed by the key card we were given: it let us through security to the stairs and elevators, was a key to our room, and activated the power for the room when we slid it into the slot by the door. So efficient! My roommate, Alyssa Donovan, a high school senior from Maine and a TEACHER at her Korean language program, and I settled in and found out that we both had the same yellow “Of course, it’s the carrot!” bag (당근이지 tang geun ee jee) from my friend’s online shop, www.okitokki.com. Each day was filled with events and tours, led by our beautiful and patient team leaders, Sunyoung Kim and Yujin Kim!
Day One seemed like a week in itself! We started with the Opening Ceremony at the National Museum in Seoul in the morning (attended by the First Lady of Korea as well as the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Sports!), then enjoyed a modern take on my favorite bibimbap at the restaurant there, had a guided tour of the historical exhibits on the first floor and then of the Buddhist sculptures on the top floor.
After that, we got on the tour buses (three for our huge group) to go to Gyeongbok Palace.
I couldn’t believe I was actually there – not only amidst the history going back to King Taejo in 1394, but also because of my own emotional connection. How many historical dramas – sa geuk --had I seen that took place there? It looked just like the place where the crown princess – or so we thought – drowned in the reflecting ponds in the past-present fantasy Rooftop Prince. I didn’t feel guilty at all that my connection to the 5,000 years of Korean history was made by crawling through the window of Korean dramas. (At first I’d just peeked in, but Kim Sun-ah of My Lovely Samsoon and Bae Yong-joon of Winter Sonata invited me in a long time ago, and I’ve been addicted ever since!) After our visit to Gyeongbok Palace, we strolled down Sejongno to the immense statue of the Great King Sejong. In every photo with our new friends from all over the world, King Sejong’s hands raised to bless us in our studies and cultural experiences in the Land of Morning Calm.
If you can imagine, each day was as jam-packed as the first with the sights and sounds of Korea right there! One of the highlights was when we visited Hwaseong Haenggung , where Dae Jang Geum was filmed. One of the KBS photographers that was traveling around with our group asked me what I thought, and to my surprise, I started crying. I tried to explain in my limited Korean that I couldn’t believe I was actually there, walking through the places that I had come to love so much as I watched Dae Jang Geum.
The program also included a two-day side trip to Jeon Ju, where we visited the palace, stayed at a guest house and slept on the floor, saw traditional Hanok architecture, and visited the cultural center for special classes in cooking bibimbap (yum!) and made hanji fans - much needed!
Hanok Rooftops in Jeon Ju
However, it was the intense experience of participating in one of the five Korean cultural groups – traditional Korean dance, K-pop, drama, Tae kwon do, and Samulnori – that helped all the participants bond and truly appreciate the amount of training, technique and passion that goes into developing skills in these expressions of Korean culture. I was in the Samulnori group and raised my hand for the Buk. I was surprised to find out that I would be playing the big barrel drum. I told everyone that maybe it seemed easier than the other instruments, the Changgo (hour glass drum), Kkweng guari (small gong), and Jing (large gong), but so much technique was still involved that it was a real challenge.
Our three Samulnori instructors were world-class, as were the instructors for the other cultural groups. Choi Chan-qyun sonsaeng nim tried to teach me, but I was a nappun haksaeng (bad student)!
He limply hit the drum and made a face; then he did it right, and it sounded so different! I pounded out the rhythms enthusiastically and suddenly, I loved my Buk – and Samulnori! The teacher tied the drum on me so that I could carry it as we ran into our spiral and then out to our positions. Doreen Lee, from China, and I were the two Buk players, and we started the group with “Tong! Tong! (pause) Tong! Tong! (pause) Tong! Tong! Tong! Tong!”
One of the five honorable judges was Mr. Kim Duk Su, who had actually created Samulnori as a performance art, transforming it from the traditional farmer processionals it had always been. Our Samulnori “Dream Team” came in second – after Tae kwon do. We took lots of group photos with our teachers and with Mr. Kim Duk Su, photos that are now posted on all our Facebook pages! My꿈, my dream, really came true! Now I miss Korea, I miss my Buk, I miss my new friends from all over the world. However, I’m so thankful that I had this unforgettable and amazing trip! My new dream is to go back to Korea! In the meantime, I will keep studying and hope to actually become an excellent Korean language learner! Fighting!