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Richard Pennington (리처드 패닝턴)

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Nine years in Korea

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The date was November 14, 2007—exactly nine years ago—and I got on an airplane in Austin, Texas destined for Daegu, Korea. I had been in the land of the morning calm once before, back in February 1994, to interview Dr. Soo-Gon Kim for my book on international students at the University of Texas. I stayed just three days, but it left a strong impression. Korea seemed like a very exotic place. I was certain that I would never be back; such is the serendipity of life.

Given my sentimental and reflective nature, I want to take a moment to ponder some of the things that have happened during this time. I present them in no particular order.

• I had arthroscopic surgery on my right knee, as was done on the left one back in 1999.

• I formed and led an NGO that sought (unsuccessfully) to convince the French to return an immensely valuable historical artifact they had taken under dubious circumstances. The reference is to Jikji, the oldest extant document printed on movable metal type. Gutenberg, you see, did not invent the printing press.

• I have purchased and read about 300 books, nearly all of them nonfiction.

• I have competed in 10 marathons, finally retiring from that strenuous field of endeavor in March 2016.

• Every December, I buy gift certificates at a local beauty store and hand them to the cleaning ladies of the Halla Classic Building (where I work). I make a big poster with their names in Korean and English, and various words that indicate these women’s importance and value.

• I have made countless friends. Some of them proved to be just acquaintances that faded quickly or eventually. Others, however, have endured.

• As a teacher at a private English academy (LIKE) in Daegu for 14 months, I did my best but am haunted by the feeling that I could have done more.

• My efforts to learn the Korean language have not been entirely successful, but they continue. I mastered the alphabet several years ago and actually know quite a few words and phrases. So to say that I “don’t know” Korean is not quite true. I am just not fluent.

• I have written six books and am working on two more.

• I only took that teaching job in Daegu in ’07 because my finances were so bad. Let’s just say they are much better now.

• I have held babies in my arms and attended funerals.

• In one corner of my apartment, I rotate the decoration—the stars and stripes, the Texas flag, the Korean Taekgukki and an orange banner commemorating UT’s four national championships (1963, 1969, 1970 and 2005).

• I led a hopeless campaign to get Abner Haynes into the College Football Hall of Fame.

• I consistently donate to the poor, blind and/or bedraggled people who wander the Seoul subway system.

• During my trip to Texas in September 2016, I drove to Abilene to see my retarded cousin, Pat Gary. It was the third time I have seen her there, including 1989 and 2004. To my knowledge, she has had no other visitors in these 27 years.

• Thanks to a page on Facebook, I have reestablished contact with numerous fellow students from our elementary school, junior high school and high school days in Dallas.

• I have been lucky enough to find a girlfriend who I will call Ms. A.

• I witnessed a violent incident near my office which the police handled superbly. As a result, I wrote to the main man at Korea’s National Police Agency, got a response from him and then had a meeting with some of the officers who managed the situation so well.

• I have written about the men and women who collect cardboard boxes and take them to the local recycling center for a pittance. The term for them here is pyeji jumneun saram.

• I have managed to stay in contact with five of my former students at LIKE. Of course, their lives have changed considerably in the intervening years.

• I have attended two piano recitals given by UT alumni.

• I have been to China thrice and Japan twice.

• At Jangsan Park in Daegu, I formed a close and loving bond with a group of children that is almost impossible to describe. As with the kids I used to teach at LIKE, they have grown up.

• I have traveled all over the southern half of the Korean peninsula. I wonder whether any other person—native or foreign—has seen as much of this country as I have in the last nine years. I have been from Sokcho (northeast) to Mokpo (southwest), from Ganghwado (northwest) to Busan (southeast) and many points in between, not to mention Jeju Island, Ulleungdo and Dokdo. I have another trip planned for next weekend, to Hongseong in South Chungcheong Province.

• Every summer, I swim at the way-overcrowded Yangjaecheon Pool.

• On a long ferry ride from Baengnyeong Island back to Incheon, I got woefully sick.

• I taught a young man, Anthony Kim, who is now working on a doctorate at Indiana University. An equally motivated student, Bomin Paek, is currently seeking to do much the same.

• I gave an impromptu speech to a group of soldiers at Okcheon Army Base, assuring them of the value of their sacrifice.

• I have done an estimated 5,000 laps on the rubber track at nearby Yongsan Elementary School. My daily constitutional is two miles, some lifting and stretching.

• I am among the very few people who have gone to the “Enemy Cemetery” near Paju, burial place of North Korean and Chinese soldiers killed during the Korean War.

• I attended the 2011 World Track & Field Championships in Daegu. I mostly remember watching Oscar Pistorius run on his carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer prostheses. That guy was a killer!

• I have been as close as you can get to North Korea without actually being inside it. At Panmunjom, I stared across the line at some NK military boys who stared right back.

• Speaking of the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I am tempted to run the 10K section of the Pyongyang Marathon on April 9, 2017. I would do so fully aware that I am being exposed to a mere façade of North Korea and its 25 million people. I would even give an obligatory bow (as all runners must) to the huge statues of Kim Il-Sung. I won’t be doing the race, and not because my money would to some degree support a regime that does not merit support. No, I would be worried that they would have done their due diligence. In my two most recent books and on my web site, I have written extensively and quite critically of Kim, his son (Kim Jong-Il) and his grandson (Kim Jong-Eun). If the North Koreans knew the venom with which I have written of these guys, I would be sent to one of the political prisons “deep in the dark mountains” as the Great Leader used to say. I would never get out. You think I am going to chance that?

• I attended a memorial service for the victims of the Sewol disaster.

• I have climbed mountains—for example, Bukhansan, Gwanaksan, Cheongyesan and Hallasan.

• While I am thrilled to be living in a country with such an old and vibrant culture, I am dismayed that so many Koreans are fond of K-pop.

• Forgive me for saying that I have made a difference as an editor at Hansung Intellectual Property. This job is not perfect, but it’s the best I have ever had. Why else would I stay for nearly eight years?

• Among the latest of late adapters, I finally got a smart phone.

• I made an interest-free business loan to Kean Nawang and Bey Jalbuena, allowing them to start a successful restaurant called Bully’s Bistro in Bacolod City, Philippines.

• Three times I have attended the weekly protest outside of the Japanese embassy on behalf of the “comfort women,” of whom there are now pitifully few alive.

• I have a sexy black-and-yellow bicycle which I ride around my neighborhood in Gangnam.

• I am a fairly frequent habitué of LBC, a unique coffee shop/radio station close to my home and office. It served as headquarters of the Jikji-return campaign. See above.

• I have edited one book, one doctoral dissertation, a couple of master’s theses and too many other academic papers to count.

• I witnessed a standoff and then a furious melee near the DMZ between people who wanted to send airborne leaflets advocating freedom or even revolution to the North Koreans and those equally determined to prevent it.

• I bought a custom-made gray three-piece suit at a store in the Itaewon district and liked it so much I went back for a blue one and a white one.

• I organized a group of donors who helped build a house for a legless boy, Daryl Bonghanoy, in a remote part of the Philippines.

• I gave a historical tour of Seoul to commemorate 70 years (1945–2015) of freedom from Japanese rule. You can find it on Youtube.

• I have attended numerous baseball games at Jamsil Stadium, home of the Doosan Bears and LG Twins.

• I went to a rock concert given in a dark club in Seoul’s Hongik district in which I was by far the oldest person present and the only foreigner.

• I have been to about 20 weddings, two of them of the traditional variety.

• I have eaten at 5-star restaurants and at pojangmachas (literally “covered wagons”) where the most basic food is served to Seoul’s harried workers.