November 30, 2012 by travelinggrits
The saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” definitely applies in Korea. In this instance, a series of connections led to an invitation from Mr. So, an industrial engineer at the headquarters of the nearest American military base, Camp Carroll, for a special tour.
At his instruction, the school principal and I met him at the gates promptly at seventeen hundred hours. He obtained special passes to escort us, and we hopped in his car and rolled through the checkpoint.
Mr. So made a slow circuit of the entire campground, pointing out the practice ground for military exercises, the storehouses for supplies and the railroad tracks. “We can send reinforcements to Afghanistan and the Gulf, as well as anywhere in Asia,” he said. As we stared down the length of the railroad tracks at the sun setting beyond the barbed wire fence separating the camp from nearby apartment complexes, he said, “Many TV reporters come here to take pictures.” Rather than treating this place like a tourist destination, I decided to soak up the experience without snapshots.
I admit, one of the highlights of the evening was watching my principal as he dined American-style. At the Strike Zone, a sit-down restaurant attached to the bowling alley, he looked a bit lost as he gazed at the menu all in English. “Where is the rice?” he asked. To my chagrin, all the “homestyle” dishes on the menu were fried: fried chicken, chicken fried steak, fried shrimp. It seemed to reinforce American eating stereotypes without acknowledging the other tasty varieties of food preparation we use. As for me, I knew what I wanted as soon as I saw it: chicken fajitas. It’s easy to find knock-off versions of pizza, pasta or hamburgers here, but true Mexican food is hard to come by.
My principal ended up ordering a steak and a baked potato. I encouraged him to taste the sour cream on the potato, and I watched, amused, as he handled his baked potato in one fist like a hotdog.
Halfway through the meal, as I was attending to careful tortilla construction, my principal leaned over, gesturing at my plate with curiosity. “Christina, I want to try some of this.” I couldn’t hide my delight. “Sure!” I scooted my plate over toward him and watched for his assessment. After a nod of approval, he urged me try some of his own
“We are eating Korean style,” my principal smiled. “My family likes to share what we order when we go to restaurants,” I grinned back.
My principal, who knows that I eat kimchi, bow in greeting and give gifts like the best of them, said, “Perhaps you are a strange American girl.” I took pride in that—breaking down the stereotype.
After dinner, we walked through the fast food canteen, and the smells of Popeye’s, Subway and Pizza Hut simultaneously assaulted my nose. “Whenever we bring foreigners in here, they get so excited,” Mr. So said. “I never really eat fast food like this at home,” I insisted. Stereotypes die hard.
We toured the camp library and gym facilities, and Mr. So pointed out that all camp buildings are built to meet American standards. “I am told that it looks like a small American town”, he said; I agreed that the architectural style was reminiscent of a college campus.
I watched the soldiers crossing the camp in their camouflage, and for a split second I walked in their shoes—or army boots, you might say. From now on, whenever I am encouraged to “remember the troops” during a patriotic event or a holiday celebration, I will think of this moment. I now understand the weight of the vast distance, the force of a long separation. But at the same time, I felt like I was less isolated than these soldiers. While some might live alone in barracks, I was already looking forward to stepping in the warm, bright doorway of my homestay and greeting my host family after a long day.
Our final stop on the tour was a humble slate monument outside headquarters. Mr. So held up his cell phone to illuminate the inscription, a memorial to Hill 303. During the Korean War, North Korean forces pushed the line of battle back to this hill, but the Americans held. However, the North Koreans disguised themselves, and the Americans mistook them for South Koreans. Out of the 1st Calvary regiment, more than 40 soldiers were captured and killed, and only five survived. As Mr. So drove me back home, we he pointed out the remains of a bridge that had been destroyed as part of the defense of Waegwan. According to Mr. So, this entire battle may be little recognized, but it began the push of South Korean territory back toward Seoul. Even though some people complain about U.S. interference, he said, he tells his children to remember the thousands of soldiers who died in Korea during the war.
Mr. So also shared a poignant tale of lasting connections. His father, formerly a Korean employee at Camp Carroll, mentored a young West Point grad in 1988. Twenty-one years later, the soldier returned as a four-star colonel for a commander appointment at the same base, and he sought out Mr. So’s father to thank him for his guidance as a father figure and friend. The officer said that seeing the elder Mr. So once more was an answer to his prayers. The younger Mr. So later wrote a letter about this experience to the White House, and he created a video to tell the story.
The motto for Camp Carroll is “Two Nations, One Team,” in memoriam to that first fight at Hill 303. But it is echoed each day in relationships like the one between the colonel and Mr. So, the pride in international collaboration like that of the younger Mr. So…And the mission of the Fulbright program and my part in it.