Wednesday, May 23, 2018

My Korea Story: 80s, 90s vs. 2000s

My Korea Story

1990's and 2014

This is my 3rd time living in Korea. I was first here in Korea in the 1980’s during the time when the Korean Air-Liner (KAL) Flight 007 was shot down. I was just a child in 5th grade attending the American elementary school on the military base in Seoul. I remember it clearly as I read it from a newspaper clipping that I cut out myself with scissors to display onto a cork board in the classroom. We shared current events daily which included USA national news, global headlines, and local to Korea interests. This event qualified as all categories. What is remarkable about this memory is that we...were never frightened for our safety. Even with media sensationalism, we trusted our governments to not escalate the tension with a military response. Our parents still put us on buses to school while they still went to work. Koreans did the same. Panic is not a characteristic of this culture and it personally taught me how to be calmest in the face of calamity. But we absolutely mourned together. What happened to Koreans, happened ALSO to Americans - because “we” have been connected for a very long time. We soldier together...we are neighbors...and we are friends. We are family.

1980's newspaper clipping printed

I lived in Korea for 3 years total and because I was a kid living in Seoul, I remember kid things. It was safe for me to walk through the city by myself. I never felt in danger of abduction or assault. Koreans loved children (American or Korean) always greeting me with smiles, treats, and hugs. The fresh fruits and vegetables were JUMBO sized! Giant carrots, cabbage, pears, and scallions especially. We toured beautiful far away mountains in the Autumn; and visited other cities in Korea for inexpensive shopping including TAEGU and PUSAN. We brought the family dog from the USA. She was a 15-pound gray poodle. The mandatory quarantine process was very, very long, but she survived it and enjoyed Korea as much as we did. I could read and write Hangeul and speak Korean because it was taught in the American schools as a culture class! My most glamourous memory is being on a children’s exhibition dance team invited to perform at a grand cultural center. What a unique thing for an average child to do! When we finally left I was grateful for the once in a lifetime experience.

The 2nd time I was in Korea 😲, I actually came back as a soldier in the United States Army. It is now the 1990’s and I am 23-years old. Married to another soldier. No children yet. I am serving as a Sergeant alongside KATUSA (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) soldiers on the same military base where I was as a kid. The only thing that changed was the Dragon Hill Lodge Resort was built on top of the area where I would swim at the outdoor pool every summer, and Itaewon prices went from $5 corduroy pants to $40 corduroy pants (am thinking it was the inflation caused by the Summer Olympics). And yes! I was there when a North Korean pilot defected in a jet. Once again, I am in the middle of history happening! I remember the alarms going off in Seoul, but not witnessing any hint of debilitating fear. Koreans are stoic and resilient and must have influenced how I respect others in a reverent manner!

(left) Joined the Army in 1994, (right) 1990's photo - Lynda Johnson as Sergeant in Korea

I did get to tour the DMZ with my family in 1985. I actually got to return to the DMZ in 1997 for work! My preventive medicine duties required I study Malaria trends along the DMZ. Was I scared being so close to North Korea? Nope! I think I was more scared of actually catching Malaria from the mosquitos than any aggression north of the zone. I still enjoyed city exploring as an adult and awoke my tastes for international cuisine: Indian, Thai, and Korean! Taegu and Pusan had not changed too much, but I did get to visit somewhere new when I won a trip to Cheju-do Island. It was so restful and I discovered the brave beauty of the women divers there. I might still have my CASSETTE tape of Haenyeo songs!! I lived in Seoul for a total of 16 months and did not notice a drastic change over the decade I had been away. I changed from a girl to a woman to a soldier, but Korea was like coming home. Like seeing an old friend.

The 3rd time coming to Korea is NOW! I am here with my Army officer husband, am RETIRED from the military after 20 years (4 years ago), and a mom of 18-year old and 14-year old daughters. The dog I have now is 75-lbs and entered the country with simply a seal stamped health certificate. We (husband and youngest daughter – the eldest daughter is attending college) stayed in Seoul briefly before continuing to Daegu on official orders.  The military post was EXACTLY the same, but Itaewon and Seoul was NOT! It grew up. I got lost and had to let my childhood apartment complex and soldier villa just disappear into a concrete jungle forever. It’s okay. I was ready for new experiences down south anyway! The first thing I noticed about Daegu was the backdrop of mountains. There’s still a city and a river, but the mountain range intrigued me. I didn’t have mountains in my backyard in Seoul! This Korean experience includes hiking 4-8 times per month with both American and Korean ladies. I also volunteer hours teaching conversation English in a DIWA (Daegu International Women’s Association) Club, and bible study on the military post to both ladies and teenagers.

(left) Married another Army Officer in 2010, (right) Snow Day for Shenzi

There were missiles launched in the direction of Japan and Pohang earthquakes during my first 9 months back in Korea. You could say my friends in the USA were wayyy more concerned for my safety than I was. So THAT has NOT changed in over 3 decades! My daughter sees that I am calm, so she is calm. The legacy continues. And NOW there are PEACE TALKS RESUMED BETWEEN THE KOREAS!!! This. Is. INCREDIBLE. Like...wall coming down between the two Germanys incredible. Oh, and I lived in West Germany for that too in 1989...When I heard Daegu, Busan, and JeJu Island said for the first time after arriving back in country, I thought I had been pronouncing it wrong this whole time and that Cheju-do and JeJu were two different islands! Am glad to learn that the names were officially changed between my 2nd and 3rd times living in Korea. The fresh produce is still BIG and the Korean people still like the children! My daughter is having fun going to market on her own, doing homework at cafes, and even venturing the downtown bright lights without fear! This would not be wise in the USA. Where crime is expected in the USA, it is simply RUDE in Korea. May I say that I love our lives in Daegu?

It is not so much Korea CHANGED this 3rd trip, but the WORLD has changed! There is social media, rapid renovation, espresso on every street corner, and global entertainment obsessions in every city that considers itself thriving. I am happy to post pictures of my colorful meals, to hostess friends (Korean and American) in my Korean home, to sip mocha at a new place every week, and to smile at the young people who ADORE their pop idols. I also never realized how many English-speaking foreigners there are in Korea (Daegu)! Students, teachers, business persons, and spouses. I am excited to make many international friends here. I do plan on traveling to beaches and shopping outlets this summer. I might even take some local Daegu friends with me! I am very interested in Korea through THEIR eyes. Do we notice the same things? I definitely don’t want to MISS A THING this 3rd time around!!


  1. Wow,this is great! I really like the pictures and how they bring life to the article so that I am not just reading, but picturing as well. This also makes me want to venture out and visit other places, countries and cultures!

    1. Aww thanks!! Yes, venture out...then tell us allll about it!

  2. Interesting. I was there in the 80s (twice, 4 years), then again from 91 to 00. Was back for a military visit in 2015. All my time was north of UiJongBu...... :-)