Army Lessons

by Leanndra Padgett, ETA ’14-’15

When I began learning Korean, little did I expect that I would need to know the sentence, “저는, 군대에서, 군인에게 영어를 가르칠 거예요,” or “I will teach English to soldiers at the army.” But after moving to Hwacheon, a South Korean town close to the northern border, it has become an essential phrase which I have often repeated. The middle school where I teach has an agreement with the military police wherein the middle and high school foreign teachers lead a weekly English class at a local base. In exchange, soldiers tutor our students.

Every Thursday, a fellow native English teacher and I walk to the base, which is only about five minutes from my homestay. As we approach the gate, the guards say “Hello!” wave and smile at us before raising the barrier. Then we eat a slightly awkward dinner in the dining hall that is known for quantity over quality. We usually sit at the officials’ table, and the younger guys who we teach are either quite friendly or ignore us completely (usually indicating whether they plan to attend or skip our class that particular week).

After eating copious amounts of the rice, greasy fried chicken and kimchi that we have generously been offered, we walk to the conference room that doubles as our classroom. Once the officials clear out, the students make their way in. I have never quite understood how the participant selection process works, but I know that some are there by choice while others are under a type of obligation to attend our class. Different soldiers come each week, but after several months, we have our regulars who keep the visitors and new students on track. There’s Shawn1 who is highly motivated because he will move to Australia soon. He often stays behind after class to ask questions about living abroad. Then there’s Doug, who spoke English while living in the Philippines and has the skills of a native speaker. We rely on him and a couple of others to help translate when our lessons are misunderstood. Others come and go but by now, we have worked with many of the men of this division.

Eating army meals, walking through the base and interacting with soldiers gives us, young foreigners teaching soldiers close to our own age, a blurry view of the world of the ROK army. Before Hwacheon, I never envisioned that my time in Korea would include glimpses into such a world, but it has, resulting in unique memories and unexpected lessons.

I have been most surprised, not by the discovery that soldiers are just ordinary people, but by the realization that ordinary people are soldiers. South Korea’s compulsory service regulations mean that every Korean man will serve in the army by age 35. While there are career soldiers, many of these men (if not the majority) are just recent high school graduates and college kids fulfilling their national duty. As I consider the danger and solemnity of their roles, I am shaken to think that every one of my rambunctious middle school boys, every one of my adorable male host cousins – every Korean man – will serve in active duty. I understand why my host mom once said that she was happy to have only daughters.

While they have various motivations and causes for doing so, all American soldiers choose to enlist. For Korean men, it is a predetermined course; they must join, just as they must attend grade school. This leads to a unique combination of people from all walks of life, many of whom are not individuals that I would peg as soldiers. They are just ordinary people in a situation of conflict, patriotism and camouflage.

Even after months of living here, I am still surprised and affected by the mingling of the military world and the Korean Mayberry that is Hwacheon. For instance, one day a few weeks into my grant year, I heard what I assumed was a train roaring by my school, only to wonder how I had missed seeing the train station before. Looking out the school window, past the soccer field and convenience store, I saw tank after tank charging down the main street. It’s just not what I expected in this town with only one traffic light. Then again, I didn’t expect to find a combination stationary and army supply store either. Colorful stickers and notebooks are shelved next to camouflage jackets and army paraphernalia. But no one in Hwacheon seems to question this unlikely combination.

Locals know that you have to get to the bus station early on weekends in order to reserve a seat to or from Hwacheon before the soldiers take them all. I have made the rookie mistake of showing up too late and missed my ride because there were so many soldiers going or coming from their weekend vacation. Daily I see mothers, fathers and girlfriends making the most of their beloved soldiers’ time off, as they walk the streets hand in hand. While in no way does the village feel occupied or in conflict, the military presence is strong here. Hwacheon seems to be, not a military town full of ordinary people, but an ordinary town full of the military.

Perhaps the most poignant demonstration of this was a moonlight festival that I attended. It was held at an elementary school a few kilometers north of my town, and a few kilometers south of the DMZ. A fellow native English teacher had invited the foreigners in the community to come participate in her school’s festival. There were carnival games, cups of odeng 2 and other traditional foods, group aerobics, field day competitions and a concert put on by students and their teachers – who were also soldiers. I had expected to have fun and see something new, but had not anticipated to be so deeply moved by the presence of the soldiers.

There were perhaps a hundred or more young military men eating fish sticks, participating in the team events, laughing with the children and performing with them on stage. As I saw the interactions between uniformed men and children, the band in which the soldiers and elementary students played and sang together, the audience in which soldiers, teachers and parents clapped and laughed, I became emotional. I find it simultaneously tragic and touching, not that there is beauty and gentleness amidst conflict, but that there is conflict amidst beauty and gentleness. For an hour or so in the Korean moonlight, I saw, not simply soldiers interacting with children as they would with their own siblings and cousins, but older siblings and cousins, who just happened to be in the army, playing games with the younger kids.

The contrast of the men, dressed in uniform and poised in opposition to the threats of their northern brothers, and the children, whose futures they intend to protect, was beautiful and striking. It is somewhat indicative of my time in Hwacheon – a community in which tiny elementary school students are safe to wander town alone and yet the county roads are lined with blockades, ready to be dynamited if ever a threat from the North is realized.

Previously, I had no concept of what it is like to live in a country with a draft, in a community so conspicuously prepared for conflict. I still can’t pretend to understand how it feels to send every brother, male classmate and boyfriend off for almost two years of limited contact and life-altering military experiences, or to grow up in a town where tanks and guns on the street are the norm. But a year of observing has led me to ponder Korea’s complicated combination of military and civilian life. While the juxtaposition was shocking at first, my experiences with soldiers and the military have allowed me to appreciate my Korean village’s complicated identity – as both an armed reserve and a rural haven.

Leanndra Padgett was a 2014-2015 ETA at Hwacheon Middle School in Hwacheon, Gangwon-do. She now teaches English at Bourbon County High School in Paris, KY.

  1.   Names have been changed.
  2.   Odeng is a fish cake on a stick, often sold as street or festival food.