As a 2010 alumna of the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia at the University of Pittsburgh, I teach a course called “Modern East Asia,” and the history of Asia is also embedded in our world history curriculum. As such, I have spent the last three summers intentionally learning about the history of the United States’ ties to the Pacific. In the summers of 2016 and 2017, I was a National WWII Museum fellow for the WWII in the Pacific program, which focused on the Pacific Theater, mostly in Japan. This past summer, I turned my focus to the Korean War and the subsequent repercussions of the war on the Korean Peninsula.
Before embarking on the journey to Korea, I was required to complete specific tasks in preparation for the trip. We were given assigned readings over three months about historic and contemporary Korea and attended three online webinars. The webinars were lectures about Korea as well as information about our upcoming trip. Each of us also selected a foundation task for the Korean War Legacy Foundation; I chose to transcribe this interview with Gerald Land
, a firefighter and U.S. Korean War Veteran. I had never transcribed before and did not realize how time-consuming or deeply moving it would be. Last year, I had a student who was a volunteer firefighter, who was also in my “East Asia” and “Contemporary World Issues” courses. I shared this interview with him, which he watched and appreciated; I believe it is these personal stories and connections that make history come alive for our students.
Our focus in the first portion of the trip was on the Korean War and the United Nations’ forces, which supported South Korea, of which the United States made up one-third. We visited the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the two-and-a-half mile-wide border along the 38th parallel that has divided North and South Korea since July 27, 1953.
Since we were in Seoul, South Korea, on July 27 this year, we were fortunate to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the armistice between North and South Korea, which was broadcast live on Korean television. We also had the opportunity to attend an evening dinner and speak with veterans from all over the world and soldiers from the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA). A highlight for me was also visiting the National Cemetery and participating in the ceremony to honor soldiers fallen during the Korean War.
Overall, the tenor of pride and gratitude that South Korea exudes towards the global – and specifically American community – is palpable. It is grateful for support during the Korean war and is conscious and intentional about sharing its economic success today; one fact that came up frequently was that South Korea is the only aid recipient to become a donor nation.
My experiences in Korea will no doubt echo in my classroom, as Sewickley’s curriculum focuses on many aspects of history, culture, and economic development relevant to South Korea. A long-time American ally, where over 28,000 United States troops are stationed, Korea is both a historic and current event. In our “Modern World History” course, students read “Lost Names” by Richard E. Kim, which discusses the Japanese occupation of Korea prior to WWII. The text and historical contextualization around this book prepare students for the subsequent discussion of the Korean War that followed and the political division, which occurred as a result of larger, global political forces. After my visit, I was refocused on the Korean War as a United Nations war, supported by 21 countries (16 who sent fighting forces and five who sent medical aid), which is emphasized in South Korea. While it is important to recognize and acknowledge America’s major contribution to the Korean War effort – and Korea does – the nation also continues to recognize the global effort and collaboration which has led to their freedom and development today.
Additionally, I learned first-hand about more specific events, such as the Axe Murder incident, and I will be able to pass these on to students. Stories such as this one, which involved two U.S. soldiers who were killed by North Korean soldiers at the DMZ in 1976, provide students more context for the tension between North and South Korea, as well as a sense of the United States’ complex and nuanced involvement in this region. These historic events also provide background for both my “Modern East Asia” and “Contemporary World Issues” classes, where North Korea is discussed. Specifically, we read the book “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick in “Modern East Asia.” From my trip to South Korea, I will now be able to add more detail, data, and imagery to illustrate the tremendously successful development project that was realized in South Korea. Images demonstrate the juxtaposition of rich history and contemporary economic development, making it the 11th largest economy in the world today.
As teachers, we also had the opportunity to have a conference with teachers from Seoul Digitech High School (SDHS) where instructional strategies and educational similarities and differences were shared through interpreters. Making connections with educators around the world is invaluable, as I have previously used these connections to have students skype and communicate directly with students their age in other countries. Sharing instructional ideas and learning what and how other countries and schools prioritize content and methodology is also important to the ongoing conversation I bring to my role as a colleague, member of our Curriculum Leadership Team, and as a Department Chair. The next day, we had the chance to visit SDHS, where students shared a number of exciting digital and technologically savvy programs. I, personally, was able to battle zombies in a virtual reality game designed by a student who was quite entertained by my adrenaline rush. Another virtual reality game was designed around war. While I contemplated how games like this might apply to history to develop understanding of both historical military strategy and empathy, other teachers had the chance to engage with student-produced graphic novels and videos.
We were also immersed in the rich history and culture of Korea. We attended Pansori Theater, toured the National Museum, stopped to see the “comfort women” statue, and visited Gyeongbokgung Palace for the changing of the guards. Finally, for the last two days, we were treated to an authentic stay at Jeondeungsa Buddhist Temple on Kanghwa Island. Sleeping on floor cushions, eating vegetarian, and waking up at 4 a.m. to practice prostrations was a unique and peaceful experience to conclude our time in South Korea.
Communicating culture – especially the subtle nuances – of a place is challenging. In the news and in daily life, “it,” “there,” and “they,” can be reduced to a monolith, which admittedly aids us in categorization and making sense of a very complicated world. Yet, no matter how much I think I understand, travel always breaks it down for me into more granular components. In my “World Religion” class, we study Buddhism and students visit the Zen Center in Sewickley. After visiting the Buddhist Seon Temple in Korea, which is the Korean version of Japanese Zen, I am able to now explain how this denomination differs between the countries and how culture impacts practice (an essential question in our course). My students, like me, can read about the Three Kingdoms of Korea (a mere three paragraphs in a 500 page textbook). But understanding the unification of Korea 1,300 years ago and the identity crisis of a nation that has ensued since splitting in half only 65 years ago, becomes much more clear after witnessing cultural interaction and laying eyes on artifacts, such as treasures of the National Museum of Korea.
Most of all, I hope that my travel to Korea and the ways in which I can connect it to our curriculum will encourage students to think critically about their world. In historic and contemporary terms, I want my own experiences to inspire curiosity, raise questions, push students to read and research, and engage them in conversations about the world in which they live.