Long before the popularity of PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” I have felt a genuine connection to South Korean culture. The admiration started years ago after watching my first Korean television show, also known as K-dramas, and escalated in those years to Korean pop music, film, history, language, customs and traditions. For years, I have been dreaming of an opportunity to visit, which seemed so far out of reach. However, in the last year I achieved this goal. It has been one of those most thrilling, meaningful experiences of my life.
I was granted the opportunity to fulfill this aspiration through an amazing program offered through the Rotary Club. This program is known as Group Study Exchange. The GSE program is a unique cultural and vocational exchange opportunity for businesspeople and professionals between the ages of 25 and 40 who are in the early stages of their careers. The program provides travel grants for teams to exchange visits in paired areas of different countries. For four to six weeks, team members experience the host country's culture and institutions, observe how their vocations are practiced abroad, develop personal and professional relationships, and exchange ideas.
I visited South Korea from March 21 through April 22 with a team, which included two other members and a team leader. I started my voyage by flying into Seoul and traveling to the southern city of Ulsan. From Ulsan I traveled to the neighboring cities of Masan, Changwan, Gimhae, Jinhae, Haman, and Yangsan. While touring these cities, I visited many traditional sites. I had the opportunity to stay at a Buddhist temple where I was able to have tea with Buddhist monks and pray in temples. I was even able to see a Buddhist monk drum ceremony. Other temples I visited were preparing for Buddha’s birthday celebration. I learned how to make paper lotus flowers which is the representative decoration for the event. There was the Cherry Blossom festival in Jinhae, one of the largest in the world. For two weeks out of the year the streets are lined with trees with beautiful and sweet smelling blossoms. I stayed in traditional Korean housing and took photos wearing traditional Korean clothes known as Hanboks. Traditional Korean and Asian pottery is something I spent of great deal of time watching being made and had the chance to participate in making.
In terms of more popular culture activities, one of my Rotarian guides scheduled a visit to a set where many Korean television dramas have been filmed. This was extremely exciting for me, as I have seen some of the dramas filmed at this location. Karaoke was a popular activity in which I became very proficient. MBC, which is one of the top three television and radio networks in South Korea, allowed us to visit not one but two of its offices, where I got to experience being an anchor on the Korean news.
Food was never something lacking on my journey. I ate traditional Korean rice and a side dish called, kimchi, which is made of fermented vegetables and a variety of seasonings. Korean street food such as fish cakes on a stick and spicy rice cakes known as ddukbokki, were other tasty dishes I tried. I ate eel straight from the ocean to the grill. I slurped seaweed soup and pumpkin soup and sipped sweet potato lattes, beer and a traditional Korean whiskey known as soju. Korean rice cakes are something I learned to make using a traditional method, essentially beating the rice mixture with a giant mallet to get the rice cake to the correct consistency.
Not only did I meet wonderful people and experience all that the South Korean culture has to offer, but I also learned more about my vocation. I am employed at the Delta-Montrose Electric Association in Montrose as a Customer Service Representative; not only do I assist members with their service needs, but the company also promotes renewable energy programs. I learned a great deal about how renewable energy is utilized on both a micro and grand scale in my travels. In terms of solar, I visited a company that manufactures solar panels. Throughout South Korea there are solar panels practically everywhere. From panels in the middle of fields to assist with farming to small panels on top of houses, the South Korean people understand the importance of using their many days of sunlight to their best advantage. I even visited an attraction powered by solar energy called the Changwon Solar Tower. It is a 28-story-high structure with an observation deck looking over the ocean. Wind energy is also used. In fact some streetlights have both a small solar panel and a wind turbine as a source of power. South Korea also utilizes hydropower in the form of dams.
I was able to learn more about the Rotary Club. I attended club meetings where my team and I presented about Colorado as a state and the Rotary district that sponsored my team and me. Here I learned more about Rotary projects. I even participated in a project where my team and I reached out to the local community and fed the homeless.
I met the most amazing, caring, compassionate people, from host families to interpreters to Rotarians to my team members. I have met people with whom I will have a lifelong bond and I will remember them and my experiences fondly.