When I was first to meet the MOU overseas correspondents, I stood outside the Central Government Complex building in the growing darkness. The back gates have two guards posted on them, South Korean policemen quite a few years younger than I am, and they were very sorrowful when they told me I could not go in without an ID badge. They struggled to find the words in English. These three aspects of the guards—their youth, and sorrow, and struggle—made me sympathetic enough that I waited outside instead of bluffing my way in.
The other members of our group arrived gradually; they drifted up the street and attached to our group, like plastic bottles to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We talked and swirled intermittently as we waited, explaining and re-explaining schools and majors and life situations. I have had similar meetings many times before and since, but this was remarkable for its cocktail-party-on-a-sidewalk-outside-a-government-building feeling, an unusual locale, though we eventually moved to a proper restaurant once all our group members arrived. But even from the very first meeting, it was clear we were about to have an unusually unforgettable summer.
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The whole experience—the office work with government officials, the errand work with older North Koreans, the mentoring work with younger North Koreans—was non-quotidian. We overseas correspondents were transported to a place very different from our normal days at college or at work in the US. We met government officials in long conference rooms. News cameras filmed our presentations. We gave interviews for Korean journalists. We walked into the main government building of Seoul on rainy mornings, dress shoes echoing down the shiny hallways, and settled in to a day researching unification issues while flocks of umbrellas with their wings spread to dry roosted in the halls outside. We bought coffee tables and sofas for defectors and helped them set up PCs in their new apartments. We taught high school defectors how to play American card games, and they taught us how to wake up at 6:00 every morning for school exercises.
One year later, the golden glow of retrospect shines a forgiving light on those memories. I welcome every one back warmly: the first dinner where I met the other Americans in the program; the Monday lectures at the Ministry alternately stretched by my thin grasp of the Korean language and fueled by Dixie cups of instant coffee; the first awkward lunch with my new bosses in the resettlement department; the relentless rain that plagued Seoul for most of our summer; the days running errands for newly settled defectors; the two busy, lazy weeks at the high school for defectors. Busy because we were doing a whole lot, lazy because we lived at the school so we were always there. All these memories seem idyllic now.
I know how much I struggled to pay attention in those lectures, how very little I understood sometimes—but I miss trying. I know how hard it was to stay focused on my research in the office when I had not one but two computer monitors abetting my Internet addictions—but I miss the rare excitement I found, of all places, in Australian court records on refugees.
Just as history is written by the victors—who have a vested interest in shaping it to sympathize with their actions—so are our memories overwritten by optimism. We can’t always trust them to reflect things as they actually happen; we should especially expect them to be biased slightly toward the pleasant, the favorable, the amusing.
But it doesn’t matter that much whether the emotional valences of my memories are accurate; what’s important to note is that I retain those memories, and that doesn’t happen when the same things happen the same way in the same places.
Our summer with the Ministry of Unification was worthwhile for its unfamiliarity. I welcome the next class of correspondents, now beginning their summer with the Ministry. I know their experiences will be novel and unfamiliar, and I thank the Ministry for offering those novel experiences to us and to them.