Peace Corps volunteers Kathy and Michael Clement can. They lived on Jeju from June of 1976 to June of 1978, working as teachers — Kathy at Jeju Girls Middle School and Michael at Gimnyeong Middle School.
In March of 2012, the Clements visited the island for the second time since they left. They met up with an old friend, Kimnyung Maze Park owner Frederick Dustin, who introduced them to The Weekly.
“We have come full circle as family,” Kathy said. The Clements started teaching in Korea in their 20s, and are back in Korea in their 60s. Although Michael had retired, Kathy still teaches at Chadwick International School, Songdo.
▲ Michael Clement. Photo by Angela Kim
“Living on Jeju as a foreigner in the 1970s was a relatively unique experience as very few Westerners had ever lived on Jeju before,” Michael recalls. He described when he first came to the island he felt like “a returning hero,” though he had never been to Jeju before. Gimnyeong villagers offered him a warm welcome with a banner.
However, for Michael, Korea still felt very much like "the hermit kingdom” in the 1970s.
“Koreans were striving very hard to have a national identity and were not very accepting of foreigners. We did not fit in very well as we were not connected to anything that they knew,” he said. “As a result our status amongst them was that we did not exist — we were there, but it really did not matter. This may have been a misperception on my part, but that is how I felt and that was what was the most difficult part of my stay on Jeju.”
There were not as many foreigners on the island as there are now. Kathy remembers the locals being curious and jumping up and down to see if they could reach her husband's height. After a while the couple learned to accept those actions as curiosity and not rudeness.
For Kathy, hardships were more tied to everyday living. She had to learn not only Korean but also Jeju dialect, because no one understood English. She had a hard time trying to keep warm during winter with only one spot heated on the floor. Finding inexpensive restaurants was another difficulty. Since there was a minimal amount of electricity and no washing machines at that time, she had to wash all her clothes by hand.
“Also this was the political time of [President] Park Chung Hee and our mail was opened, read and marked through,” Kathy said. She was only able to call her family back in the US once in the two years she lived here.
▲ Kathy Clement. Photo by Angela Kim
However, their life was much simpler back then. Jeju City ended few blocks away from where they lived, near the KAL Hotel. Without many cars on the street or even paved roads, two went around the island by buses. Two main buses led their journey — one going around the island, and one going over the mountain. There were no bus stops. To catch a bus, “all you had to do was get on the road,” Michael said. They climbed the Seongsan Sunrise Peak when there was no walkway, and climbed Mt. Halla when there were no trails.
Their feelings of the Jeju of today are mixed. While they are excited to see Jeju’s developments and improvements, they both expressed their concern for Jeju being over-developed and overwhelmed by tourism.
When the couple revisited their favorite spots in Jeju, they couldn’t recognize some the of the places. In his memory, Hwasun beach was a fairly remote beach that they used to camp on, but “now on that spot lies a rusting hulk of a shipwreck and on the other end of the beach is an ugly power plant.” He described how the entire beach now “appears to be an industrial site that one would not like to picnic on.”
Also, Songaksan was remote, where one had to walk several miles through farm land to get there. Very few people even knew anything about it.
“Now there is a parking lot at its base with bus after bus disgorging tourists that swarm over the site. And there are restaurants galore to feed the lot,” Michael said.
“Considering changes that have occurred, it’s not as environmentally friendly,” Kathy stressed. “Progress is good, but one needs to keep in mind the original beauty of a place and keep it as original as possible.”
But they both agree that the island managed to preserve its local culture better than other major cities in Korea.
“Now Koreans are very accepting of foreigners and we seem to fit in better,” Michael said.
Quoting Kahlil Gibran — The things which the child loves remain in the domain of the heart until old age. The most beautiful thing in life is that our souls remain over the places where we once enjoyed ourselves — Kathy said, “I miss the beauty of Jeju in the 1970s, but I don't miss the hardships of my Peace Corps days.”
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