Westerners know relatively little about Korea. Through film, food, music and fashion, Chinese and Japanese culture are more familiar, but, other than taekwondo, kimchi and recently Gangnam Style, Westerners have been exposed to very little of Korean culture. This is particularly surprising in the United States, a country that fought a war in Korea within living memory of many people. Tonight I joined a group of people celebrating the achievements of my friend and colleague Mary, a retired high school teacher who has devoted her retirement to not only learning about Korean culture and teaching it to others, but teaching others how to teach about it. This evening’s event marked the publication of her book on teaching Korean culture in schools as part of the U.S.’s Common Core school curriculum. The book is groundbreaking; so far, no such book has been created to teach about China or Japan.
I met Mary years ago when I worked at Pacific Asia Museum and she was attending an event. I learned that she was working on a book about Korean culture and I was very impressed by her dedication to this work, even though she was supposedly retired from many years of hard work as an educator. And she had been a good one too – my assistant, Sian (see May 6) had been her student at high school and raved about her. Over the years, I got to know Mary better and learned that she had gone beyond writing books about Korea. She had created a Korean Academy For Educators (KAFE) and was running seminars for school teachers, week-long seminars introducing them to such diverse aspects of Korean culture as music, history, art and food making. A few years ago, she invited me to give the lecture on Korean art and then asked me to write that chapter of her book The Koreas. Since Japan has always been my main focus, I felt out of my depth tackling Korean art, but with her encouragement, I was able to get over my fears and do a decent job.
Working with her on the seminars both for KAFE and more recently for the National Korean Studies Seminar (NKSS) has been a pleasure over the years since Mary is one of the most organized, respectful and hard-working people I have met, and she is a terrific communicator, not only with the teachers she is training and the specialists she hires to teach them, but also with the Korean people whose culture she is promoting. Not surprisingly, because of her work over the years, she has been presented with many awards, including one from the country’s Prime Minister in appreciation of her efforts to promote Korean culture in the United States. Today, I gave Mary a handbag. It is elegant with a slightly Asian air to it – I guess it’s a little like Mary. It has been an honor to work with her even in a small way to help spread intercultural understanding to the next generation.