On September 5, 2007, I flew to Seoul, where I met my co-guide Linda Sartor to begin two weeks of guiding a Vision Quest and providing staff training for a newly opened forest retreat center located in the countryside. It was an exciting opportunity, and one that largely led us into the new and unknown (much like a quest). While Linda has lived and worked in Asia, currently in Sri Lanka (from where she traveled to meet up in Seoul), this was my first visit to this part of the world. And while we’ve worked with participants from many countries, including China and Japan, this would be our first real contact with the culture of Korea.
As the journey unfolded, I sent a series of emails home to record my impressions of the land, the people and our work. We found the Korean people to be consistently generous, kind, thoughtful, and devoted to family, and the program itself was a clear success. At the end of our stay, we were interviewed for South Korean television, with hopes expressed that this work could help the country with its high incidence of work-related stress and adolescent suicide. We felt that it definitely could, and the staff we’d worked with were planning on applying the training in their work with youth and adults, and making changes in own lives to reflect the insights they’d gained.
–Mike Bodkin, Executive Director
What follows is the first email I sent home, beginning on our first morning in Seoul:
Up at 5:30–couldn’t sleep more, despite having been up until essentially 5 am California time. But slept enough in that wonderful room in Seoul. Our driver showed up at 7 sharp as planned, but with a translator, Jonque (he tells us to call him “John Q” as in “John Q public”). Linda and I hadn’t tried to eat breakfast, figured they’d have it with us, but they were surprised when I said we’d like to eat. Something simple…so they take us to the dining room of the fanciest hotel around, and buy us a ridiculous breakfast of oj, coffee, lox, bagels, scrambled eggs, Korean style foods (its a buffet and the buffet area is enormous), fresh baked goods, potatoes like we make them but without the garlic, greek olives, grapes, melon, and a lot of stuff I didn’t even try to eat. Whew.
Then a longish drive to Soop Chae Won. Soop means “forest”. And a long day here, meeting the executive director of Soop Chae Won, then later the E.D. of the Korea Forest Foundation. Him in an immaculate dark suit, me in my Galen Rowell t shirt. Bows,handshakes. I say “my name is Mike”, he says “my name is Lee,” I say “how do you do Lee,” someone else says “Lee is his last name” so I was inadvertently rude, I correct “how do you do, Mr. Lee?” But all is forgiven in smiles and cups of delicious green tea, served ceremonially in a way, not formally like in Japan though.
Much talk, descriptions, etc.–then off to give a 5 minute speech to 200 teenagers, which we worked on for about an hour so my translator could get it right. He didn’t understand “rite of passage” among other concepts, at least at first. I read my English, he read his Korean…I could have said anything really.
High points of day:
“Its time to sign the contract” I’m told, and ushered into the executive office…where there’s a big banner, in Korean and English, that say’s (in Korean) Soop Chae Won, and in English “Rites of Passage” and it’s a sign of our relationship now…then they have us seated (I have a name sign that says “Mike Bodkin, Executive Director, Rites of Passage”)and Mr. Lee has his sign, and we formally sign two contracts, like two heads of state signing a treaty. Everyone applauds, takes pictures, it means we’re married…or at least engaged.1
Then we go out to dinner, to a small provincial Korean restaurant serving very traditional foods. Lots of food–can’t name most of it, and most was vegetarian (rare here), but oh my god all the little bowls of stuff and sauces and soups and a hot plate tureen of spicy ginseng-like roots and mushrooms and sticky rice and noodles and miso soup and some sake-like drink we kept toasting each other with and and and….add your favorite Korean dish here. Then I saw a guitar on the wall and asked to sing a song…bad strings, bad action but surprisingly ok intonation, so I first explained and then sang “Brother Warrior” complete with the line about “crying for a vision”. I spoke about how we need to give back to the earth now….and everyone applauded and we drank a round, then Mr. Lee rose to sing and sang a marvelous and soulful Korean traditional song in a powerful and moving voice, really a fine voice. More applause, more sake (or whatever it was), then he sang a song of Pavarotti’s, whom Mr. Lee said was the finest tenor of our time, more applause etc. More talk of vision and crying and singing and then we left. Came back to a meeting of the questers, our first, which lasted 2 hours and is why I’m quite tired but not entirely unhappy, this will be a challenge nonetheless. I’m feeling equal to it tho.