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A Korea Conference Room in the Midwest at Indiana University?

Hye-Seung Kang
Hye-Seung Kang
Associate Director, East Asian Studies Center, Indiana University
Indiana University (IU) is located in a small college town in the US’s Midwest. The population of Bloomington is 83% white, but the city also boasts a room called the “Korea Conference Room.” The room shown in the picture is the Korea Conference Room in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies (HLS) on the IU – Bloomington campus. This room is the only one on the university’s campus that is named after a country, and the contents of the room exude a traditional Korean vibe: from the traditional furniture and the instruments to the screen embroidered with flowers and birds and the cartoonish folk paintings of tigers and magpies. The room has become known as one of the most beautiful on campus. As such, even people outside of HLS use it frequently.

A Korea Conference Room at Indiana University

The Korea Conference Room at IU is the first time a university in the US prepared a room according to the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Korea Corner Project in 2016. The room was named after receiving approval from the president of the university. The contents of the room, including the traditional furniture and paintings, were imported directly from Korea after meeting the artists who made them. A news reporter provided pictures of the Sunshine Policy and the World Cup to hang on the walls. These events happened many years ago, but they still offer a beautiful image of Korea. While the room is small, it plays a large role on campus by spreading knowledge about Korea. Because the room is open for any meeting on campus, many people who know nothing about Korea have visited it. Often times, these people express interest in learning more about Korea after seeing the items and pictures exhibited in the room. In addition, the Dean often shows the room to important visitors. The Korea Conference Room has been used to host East Asian film group meetings, a gayageum workshop, interviews with East Asian authors, and even programs and meetings that are not related to Korea. However, the Korean Night festival is the event that brings knowledge of Korea to the most people on campus and in the community.

1,000 participants at Korean Night
Korean Night was first held in 2013 to bring traditional and contemporary Korean culture, arts, and music to the people of our community. Knowledge about Korea was severely lacking in Bloomington before I started working at the East Asian Studies Center in 2012. Each year, 55% of the contents of academic lectures held regularly at the East Asian Studies Center was about China, 35% was about Japan, and only 10% was about Korea. In fact, Korea was not featured at all in some years. Cultural events showed the same trends. Korean Night was small when we held it for the first time in 2013, but it was very successful and rewarding because we worked together with student and community groups. Following that success, Korean Night has become an annual tradition of the East Asian Studies Center. In 2019, we hosted the 6th annual Korean Night. Around 200 people attended Korean Night in 2013, but there were approximately 1,000 participants this year. Korean Night has become the largest event based on a country in Bloomington and the whole of Indiana. Each year, more and more people from surrounding areas including Chicago, Kentucky, and Ohio come to Bloomington to participate in the event. Many attendees have said that Korean Night is the best Korean culture event held in Indiana.

So how did this event grow so successfully? The event is divided into several parts. It starts in the afternoon with tables for participants to experience all sorts of different Korean games such as mask making, jegichagi, origami, and face painting. This is followed by welcoming remarks from the Consul General or Consul from Chicago and university officials. The event continues with traditional music performances, dance groups, taekwondo and hapkido demonstrations, a professional arts performance, and a tasting of Korean food. In the morning, we hold workshops for American teachers to provide them with lesson plans about Korea and discuss ways to teach their students about Korea. These teachers then run the culture tables during the event in the afternoon.

A huge amount of teamwork is needed to ensure Korean Night is successful each year. This work would not be possible without the passion and love for Korea of the few staff members at the Center, the Korean Student Association, student groups and American students who are interested in Korean politics and music, and the interest of devoted Korean community members. Above all, the organized volunteering of the students is very impressive. The unified work of all of these groups and individuals creates a beautiful synergy. In addition, Korean Night solidifies the unity between student volunteers and community members. It also gives pride to Koreans and non-Koreans in Bloomington who support Korea. We are planning the 7th Korean Night for April 11, 2020, and I hope that it will be an even bigger success.

Koreaoo Night Event

Creating “Koreanist” teachers in America (Korea Study Tour)
I am currently director of the IU National Consortium for Teaching about Asia (NCTA). This program’s mission is to provide education about East Asia to American teachers so that it can be used in their classes and lesson plans. IU’s NCTA is one center among seven across the country. One of NCTA’s program include taking teachers on study tours to Asia. This program achieves NCTA’s goals by providing teachers with direct experience of East Asian culture. All of the seven centers’ directors are Americans. Most of the study tours planned by the other centers focus on China or Japan. Even if they go to Korea, it is usually just a stopover for one or two days between stays in Japan and China. We know that Korea has made a lot of progress, but many people in America still see Korea in the shadow of Japan and China.

In 2017, I organized the first study tour to Korea for American teachers and spent 15 days in Korea with 16 American teachers. Even though it was my first time leading a study tour to Korea, I did not rely on a travel agency to choose the cities, schools, and cultural programs to visit. Instead, I researched all of these by myself and through friends in Korea. How could I trust a travel agency with such an important task? I wanted to distinguish this from a simple vacation and focused on ways to help the teachers gain a meaningful understanding of Korean society. Funding for the trip was secured from the Freeman Foundation, and it took nearly a whole year to complete all of the planning. The goal of the study tour was to help the teachers gain understanding of Korean culture, art, education, and all aspects of Korean society. We hoped to provide learning opportunities about Korea to American students when the teachers returned to their homes and used the experiences and knowledge they gained in Korea in their classes. The results were even greater than we expected. The enthusiastic teachers made lesson plans about Korea’s history, culture, art, politics, and the North-South relationship and are teaching them to their K-12 students.

With this experience of success, we carried out the second study tour in Korea for American teachers from June 13 – June 29, 2019. We chose ten teachers from nine states who had completed 30 hours of NCTA programs and visited major cities and facilities in Korea. The contents of the 17-day study tour varied greatly. The teachers had an opportunity to engage and exchange with Korean students, administrators, and fellow educators at five schools (Sungkyunkwan University, Dundae Elementary School, Samseong High School of Beauty Life, Yeomyung School, and the Korea High School of Cultural Heritage in Jeonju). Through presentations about Korea’s education system, the teachers learned about characteristics of Korea’s alternative elementary schools, schools for North Korean escapees, specialized high schools, and schools for cultural heritage.

We also visited UNESCO-designated cultural sites such as Seokguram Grotto, Cheomseongdae, Bulguksa Temple, Anapji, and Changgyeongung Palace’s gardens. These visits helped widen the teachers’ understanding of Korean history and culture. Through a tour of the Third Tunnel of Aggression, Dorasan Station and the DMZ and lectures about North Korean culture, the teachers learned about the relationship between North and South Korea. We also visited the Academy for Korean Studies and listened to an introduction of their “Understanding Korea Project.” The teachers also had several cultural experiences such as a Hanbok and Bojagi experience at the Korea Tourism Organization’s Seoul Center, participating in a tea ceremony, and picking and processing green tea on a farm in Boseong.

2019 South Korea Study Tour

Rebecca Hasselle, a teacher at a Tennessee high school for the gifted, said the following about her experience.

“This study tour to Korea has helped me grow both personally and professionally. All of us American teachers on the study tour learned so much, and I am excited and happy to share the abundant things I learned about Korea with my students in the future. I had a fabulous time in Korea, made connections at schools for my curriculum project, made new friends, saw amazing historic places, artifacts and beautiful countryside, and had great cultural experiences. But overall, the most impressive thing about Korea was how polite and friendly the Korean people are. I was warmed by the friendliness of the teachers and students at the schools we visited.”

When I heard Rebecca’s words, I truly felt like all of my hard work was worth it. Christina Hargis, a teacher from Louisiana, said the following about her experiences on the study tour:

“I’ve never been abroad except for North America and Europe, so I was fascinated by everything about Korea as soon as I stepped off the plane. Everything was new to me: the scenic beauty, the sounds, and the Korean people. As a teacher of geography, to visit the historical sites, visit school, and experience first-hand the culture of Korea is an invaluable learning experience that I can pass on to my students through pictures, artifacts I purchased, and recounting my extraordinary adventure. I hope to visit Korea again with my husband and daughter. However, no travel in the future could compare to the educational value of this study tour.”

Why educate American teachers about Korea?
So why should we educate ordinary American teachers? Teachers in America are underpaid and have many responsibilities. It is an occupation that cannot be done without a real sense of duty and dedication. Unlike Korean schools, most K-12 schools in the US do not use textbooks. Instead, the teachers themselves prepare lesson plans and study guides that serve the role of textbooks. The Korea study tour aims to have abundant lesson plans about Korea used in classes by expanding each teacher’s knowledge about Korea. Many of the teachers commented that the study tour was a “life changing experience.” The study tour was partly funded by the East Asian Studies Center and the Consulate General in Chicago. The teachers who participated in the study tour continue to actively introduce Korea in their classes and community programs. They have become a “gateway” for sharing Korean culture, history, and society to American students and communities.

Cross-Cultural Issues
It is said that one becomes a patriot after leaving their homeland. Many people would agree with this statement. I often think about myself in Korea or in the US. I wonder if I would continue doing the work I am now if I lived in Korea, and I consider what type of work I would do in Korea. I can still remember the cultural conflict I felt in America when I was young. The only thing that has changed now is the breadth of my understanding. While the conflict is still there, I can now think, “So that’s why they do it this way” instead of, “I don’t know why they do that.” It is more important to try to understand and accept cultural differences. I think that one of the reasons I love my current work so much is because I can freely step between two countries and two cultures. I believe that cultural conflicts can be somewhat alleviated when Americans have a chance to learn about Korea and when we respect each other. This is my dream as I stand between the two countries.

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