Usually twice a year our boss likes to take all employers on an overnight workshop trip. It’s an all-expenses paid, teambuilding trip.
Every year the Korea government requires English instructors to have a training trip. While public school employees all go to Changwon for workshops and lectures on lesson planning and working with Korea co-teachers, we go to “explore Korea” and “create harmony” and team=build with our bosses (the government pays for it, though).
This spring we went to Geojedo, an island off the southern coast of South Korea. Originally, we were also going to an island with a botanical garden, but the weather was too bad and the ferry wouldn’t run in choppy waters. Our bosses had to scramble to come up with an alternative plan for us.
“A vacation?” you cry. “How lucky your boss takes you on vacation, pays for it, and calls it work!”
No. The government pays for it because they want trained English teachers. And this wasn’t a vacation. The expectations and demands put on us were actually higher and more taxing than a regular day in the office or teaching kids. In the words of one of my coworkers, “it’s just another workday. Do what he wants.”
We hopped in the vans at 9 am. Six teachers went in the back van with the school’s IT guy, and two teachers went with our bosses and the administrative assistant. Because of the bad weather we drove slowly. At the coast we stopped for a long lunch, and then were instructed to walk around for 45 minutes to enjoy the scenery. We huddled inside with cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Thankfully, halfway through that allotted time it stopped raining so we could go outside and enjoy the scenery.
To get from the coast to the island of Geoje we had to cross a bridge. This bridge was actually pretty cool. Finished in 2010, it has a tunnel and bridge combined. According to the Korean times, “The fixed link broke several world records. It has the longest immersed tunnel pieces at 180 meters each; parts of the tunnel are located 48 meters underwater, the world’s deepest; and the tunnel is the first immersed one constructed on the open sea.” It took us about 10 minutes to cross. We went through a tunnel under the sea, up on a bridge, through a tunnel in a mountain island, then under the sea, then a bridge over the sea. It was pretty intense and really cool.
The ferry to the botanical gardens was closed, so Plan D (or E, or F) was to take us to a museum about a former Korean president. I like history, so this was interesting. Except Korea doesn’t have a tourism industry, so nothing was in English. It was the childhood home off Kim Young-Sam. He was (I think) Korea’s first democratic president in 1992. Based on the murals and models, he fought in the Korean war, led riots against the government, and was elected president. His mother was shot and killed by someone on her front porch. That’s what we were able to piece together when no one offered us English translation of what was going on.
From there we went to the POW museum. This was definitely the highlight of the trip. It was a highly educational, eye-opening experience. When we first arrived we went up to this big memorial-looking fountain with flags. I thought, “this is interesting. This looks cool.”
We went up a hill and started looking for English signs. Our next main thoughts were, “Too bad there isn’t much English. This looks interesting. The park is well taken care of. Lots of buildings are new.”
We learned it was a UN-run camp from 1951 to 1953 that housed (in total) 173,000 North Koreans and Chinese forces. The signs stressed that the South Koreans treated their prisoners much better than the North Koreans (“possibly, I’d believe that if I had proof” we thought) and the prisoners had so much leisure time to pursue hobbies (“yes, I’ve seen The Great Escape. I know what POW leisure time looks like,” I said to Jordan).
Read the signs. The state, “A POW in bed is under medical care’ (Translation: we had doctors for them! We had beds for them!”) POWs wash themselves outdoors at leisure. (Translation: “This is really just a spa, folks. Look how happy they are to wash themselves in the great outdoors.”) POWs attend religious service (Translation: “We let them gather, we let the worship, we’re really just nice people all around”).
Although the war was pretty recent, no camp buildings remain in tact. There were, however, lots of photo opportunities with cardboard tanks, jeeps, standing next to painted pictures of POWS bathing, and etc. Hordes of schoolchildren were racing through the park willy-nilly. “Kids often don’t understand the gravity of war memorials,” we thought, “But shouldn’t the teachers be quieting them?”
The atmosphere felt like an amusement park. Patriotic music blared from speakers throughout the park. We were told that at the end of the park there were arcades for the kids to play shoot-em-up games, with fake rifles and everything. Slowly it dawned on us that this wasn’t a memorial. Not at all. It was a monument. “Jordan, this is really weird,” I said around the halfway point.
It got weirder.
We walked by the mannequins portraying daily life in the camp. I have never seen a mannequin’s butt before, but I’ve seen a lifetime’s worth now. Instead of portraying the prisoners sitting on beds or reading or cooking, they had four gathered around the latrines. One was squatting over a hole. You were supposed to stand next to him and pose squatting also (though I think real people were encouraged to keep their pants on). Two or three others had their pants unzipped and urinating in a metal barrel. They were all anatomically correct. Another mannequin was holding the most detailed model of excrement (with maggots) in a bucket I have ever imagined.
“So this really isn’t about commemorating the war and how sad it was to be a POW, was it?” Jordan asked as we tried to decide how horrifying it was to encourage visitors to take photos of POWs relieving themselves.
“I think this is more a monument to South Korea,” I replied, “Like, ‘look what we did! See how we didn’t outright kill our POWs? We offered to send them back at the end of the war? This is a part of our history and is what makes us great.'”
“Everyone is way too fascinated with the POWs pooping,” Jordan decided. “Should I get a photo?”
We decided not to. Dignity matters in all human beings.
Everything kind of blurs after that. We got used to the patriotic, happy music playing, the children laughing and making fun of the mannequins, and the blatant propaganda. There was a peace pavilion, but it was just random quotes from Gandhi and MLK Jr.
Our last building was a portrayal of a battlefield. I’d been in one of these before (Battle of the Somme exhibit in Northern Ireland) and knew to expect sounds of explosions, strobe lights, barbed wire covering our heads, etc. What I didn’t expect was the platform we paused on with fake guns mounted to the railings. Lasers streamed from the exhibit toward us (like we were being shot at) and the signs said to shoot back (like war is a game).
We did get a photo with it, just because it was so shocking. We left the building with the distinct impression that they were saying, “war is cool, kids! Practice shooting those North Koreans!” It was disturbing.