Week 6: Mountains, Movies and Mandoo, Oh My!

Gwangju Travel Blog

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The Indian Museum located at the base of Mudeungsan.

One of my favorite aspects of travelling is meeting so many interesting people from all walks of life.  This week I spent some time with Kim Youngim, a professor of English Lit at one of the universities in Gwangju.  We first came in contact when I answered her ad requesting volunteers to read English stories to local orphans and underprivileged children.  We decided to meet on Tuesday so she could go over the basics of the story book program and we could get better acquainted.  At 8am she picked me up at the apartment and took me to Mudu Mountain (aka Mudeungsan) which was only a 15 minute drive from my neighborhood.  Mudeungsan is part of the mountain range that encircles Gwangju.

Volunteers and Orphans at Kona Storybook Center.
  We parked at the base and hiked up to Jeungsimsa Temple where she showed me how to offer praise to Buddha.  She is not actually Buddhist but her husband is and, like me, she embraces learning about all faiths. As we walked back down the mountain we discovered how much we had in common.  I told her about my travels and volunteering experiences and we were happy to realize how similar our outlooks on life are.

She gave me a bit of background info on herself and the Kona Storybook program.  Before earning her PhD she spent two years in England assimilating anglican culture and perfecting her command of the English language.  While writing her thesis she began to volunteer at one of the local orphanages with her children.

Showing the kiddos where I'm from. They're not too crazy about Chicago but for some reason they love L.A. And Britney Spears :)
  She was happy to have an opportunity to give back to the community and to help others practice their English in the hopes that when the children grow up and leave the orphanage, their language skills will give them an advantage in the heavily saturated workforce.  Eventually she recruited other families and some of her graduate students to volunteer at various locations in the city.  After founding Kona Storybook Center she was able to reach out to dozens of children in half a dozen locations across Gwangju with her army of dedicated volunteers.

Now, several years later, Kona is still going strong.  She invited me to come to her home on Sunday to meet some of the orphans and other volunteers and witness firsthand how the program is run.

Me trying to help one of the orphans read. Too bad he didn't understand a word I said... but we did enjoy looking at the pictures together :)
 

We spent the remainder of the morning taking in the exhibits at the Indian Museum at the base of Mudeungsan.  This museum was established by the same organization that created the Tibetan Museum near Suncheon.  We were given a private tour by Mukul, a scholar of religion and native of India.  He has spent the last ten years in Korea studying, giving lectures, and running the museum.  He explained to us the origin of the Hindu religion and the ways that it embraces many other religious icons including Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus.  According to Hinduism these religious figures are all reincarnations of the supreme divinity, Krishna.  It's difficult to explain the philosophy behind it but it seemed to me that such an unobtrusive, harmonious view of global religions could prevent many future battles between diverse religious factions.

The whole Kona gang. The orphans proudly display their story maps.
  Unfortunately that's not how the worlds works.

After our enlightening visit to the museum Youngim took me to one of the orphanages and introduced me to some of the kids and the staff. The orphanage was equipped with a small computer lab, a modest library/reading room and several crowded classrooms.  The kids seemed to be in good spirits and looked at me, the awkward foreigner, with unabashed curiosity and open mouths.  Youngim explained that we will only be reading with a few kids at a time.  Some lack the slightest inclination to learn English so we work with only those that show the greatest determination and eagerness to learn.  All of the kids I saw were under 12 so I can't blame them for not wanting to be cooped up reading stories instead of running around outside in the sunshine.

Mukul, a religion professor and curator of the Indian Museum in Gwangju leads us in a meditation and yoga exercise.

I got another opportunity to spend time with the orphans at Youngim's house on Sunday.  We split into groups and read stories, presented story maps to the class, sang songs, had an improptu puppet show (put on by none other than moi...it went well considering I hadn't read the story it was supposed to be based off nor did I know ahead of time that I would be putting on a puppet show.)  Mukul led us in a meditation exercise (in Korean of course) so I crossed my legs and took a refreshing power nap.   After we were done with the program I got a chance to sit down and talk with some of the other foreign volunteers.  Viva, a Filipino whose husband is Korean, is one of Youngim's students.  Two other volunteers I met were my age.

Me and Grace at Funny Tree
  Simon is a native korean who speaks Japanese and English fluently.  His girlfriend, Tatiana, is from Puerto Rico and has lived and taught English in Korea for a little over a year. Tenzie is from Malaysia and is currently working in Gwangju as an intern at the May 18th National Memorial, which commemorates the Gwangju Massacre during the Korean Democratic Movement of 1980.  I loved hearing everyone's stories about their experiences in Korea and their plans for the future.  I felt fortunate for having the opportunity to meet such humble, open-minded people.

The remainder of the weekend consisted of self-indulgence in the chaotic shopping district downtown.  Justin and I met our friend Grace to study Korean and snack on yummy treats at her friends bar/cafe, "Funny Tree.

Justin enjoying a smoothie at Funny Tree.
"  It totally reminds me of Dolores Umbridge's office in Harry Potter 5.  I've never been in such a girlie place.  There was so much pink that I think even Barbie might be jealous!

 Later we feasted on Mandoo (Korean dumplings) and tried to see Stardust on Saturday night but we missed the last showtime (this has happened several times before) so we opted for The Simpsons Movie instead.  I think this where my Korean students got there favorite phrase, "Oh My God" from.  Sunday morning we were determined to see Stardust so we took a cab to the cinema and caught the 10:30 showing.  We were definitely not disappointed.  If you haven't seen it I recommend you rent it in the future- it's worth it just to catch a glimpse of Robert DeNiro flitting like a fairy in women's underclothes :) 

 

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The Indian Museum located at the b…
The Indian Museum located at the …
Volunteers and Orphans at Kona Sto…
Volunteers and Orphans at Kona St…
Showing the kiddos where Im from.…
Showing the kiddos where I'm from…
Me trying to help one of the orpha…
Me trying to help one of the orph…
The whole Kona gang.  The orphans …
The whole Kona gang. The orphans…
Mukul, a religion professor and cu…
Mukul, a religion professor and c…
Me and Grace at Funny Tree
Me and Grace at Funny Tree
Justin enjoying a smoothie at Funn…
Justin enjoying a smoothie at Fun…
Gwangju
photo by: jegs76