All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
Seoul is an extra-ordinary city, busy, crowded, clean, noisy, and big, very big. It stretches in every direction.
Old Seoul lived inside the city walls. As more and more people came to settle, the city expanded, east to west, north to south, redefining its boundaries and claiming more land.
Today’s Seoul keeps growing, side to side and up and up. The old hanoks, the tall towers and parks bordering the Han River on each bank give the city its contradictory character.
Although I love to explore it, trying to get into its “soul”, trying to understand its people and their history, I felt it was time to go on an adventure outside of Seoul.
I headed east to the province of Gangwon-do by bus to a small town called Gangneung-si known as the birthplace of one of Korea’s great teachers, Yulgok Yi Yi. I visited his home, Ojukheon House and then headed to the beach!
The story of Yi Yi is an important part of Korean history but it also helps to grasp the Korean devotion and passion for education.
As I walked around the beautiful grounds that house a shrine, his house and two museums, I concluded that Yi Yi and his mother, Shin Saimdang are a kind of role model for today’s mother-son relationship as it relates to education.
Yulgok, Lee was born in this “villa” in 1536. His mother was a very smart and talented woman who educated him and his siblings. She also painted and wrote poetry. She symbolized what Koreans call “Good Wife, Wise Mother”.
Yi Yi was incredibly smart too. He learned to read and write when he was only 3 years old and by the time he was 10 he wrote a famous piece of writing called “An Ode to Gyengpodae”. When he was 16, his mother died. However, Yi Yi continued to learn and to grow becoming a famous writer and politician.
One of the things that struck me about Yulgok Yi Yi was not only how intelligent and accomplished he was but also that he was recognized for having passed the civil service exam nine times with the highest score. This exam was instituted so men from aristocratic families could become government officials.
The tradition of exams is almost 500 years old. They still define Korean culture and thinking. They are a way to improve one’s future as one can be admitted to the top universities and most likely insure one’s professional future.
Exams are an integral part of this country’s culture – they are the measure used to mark a trajectory from high school to a career in civil service or in private companies.
The other thing that I learned during my visit was that Yulgok Yi Yi and his mother Shin Saimdang are valued and celebrated in a daily and “mundane” way – they each appear in the won notes or money. Yi Yi appears in the 5,000 won and his mother appears on the 50,000 won note.
The thing that I love the most about this mother-son relationship acknowledgement is that the mother is the one featured on the highest won note! Some food for thought…
After my cultural excursion, it was time to head to the beach. I had to see the ocean, the horizon. I was craving for a slower pace and different scenery.
Korea is a naturally beautiful country – a peninsula with mountains, lakes, forests surrounded by the sea. 24 hours east of Seoul was exactly what I needed!
And by the way, Gangwon-do province will hold the 2018 Winter Olympics in a town called Pyeongchang, not too far from where I visited.