In January of 2005, I set out on a remarkable journey: a completely new life.
I’d been a clinician and educator in New York for 15 years when I finished my doctoral degree…and turned forty. In a classic midlife reevaluation, I decided that, while my career to date had been rewarding, it was simply time for something new. I didn’t know what was next; academia was also pleasing but not ultimately fulfilling. I gathered my courage, closed my practice, resigned all positions, and offered myself on the altar of synchronicity. The pursuit of ‘global citizenship’ was the only goal I had, a rather abstract one at that.
As my practice had included an integration of traditional Asian medicine and transpersonal psychology, East Asia beckoned. But which country? I considered Taiwan, China, Japan, Thailand, and finally settled on South Korea.
“Why South Korea?” I was asked by many Koreans, and of course, by family and friends in the US. My answer evolved over time, and the longer I lived there, the more I determined that for my purpose as I’ve come to understand it — creative writing through the lens of cultural psychology – there was no better place to begin.
Why South Korea? A number of key cultural features intrigued me from the beginning, and to this day. Korea is one of the few remaining ‘intact’ cultures in the developed world, at the time of my arrival in 2005 still 99% Korean and a mere 1% foreign, primarily Asian. [As of December 2022, it is 3.4% foreign, and 8 of the top 10 origination countries are in Asia.] With heritage from Siberia and Mongolia, there also exists a 5-millennia practice of Shamanism, unusual in developed countries and a longstanding interest of mine. The rate of development in South Korea is unprecedented, from underdeveloped to developed status in a 30-year span and from UNICEF recipient to donor – and what does that level of stress do to a society? Despite the preference among Asian cultures for emotional reticence, Korea is known for being unusually expressive. Feminism and efforts toward gender equality are in a ‘third wave’ in the country, an area of society rapidly evolving. The people’s history of multi-layered trauma, particularly throughout the 20th century, and its ongoing process of recovery is of keen interest to this former trauma psychologist. Korea is also considered to be ‘the most Confucian’ of nations, has a form of Buddhism all its own, and has a long history of placing high value on education and scholarship. Equally intriguing is the equation of conflict and possible reunification between South and North, making for a fascinating political dynamic, especially for this pacifist – and how does living under the shadow of war for more than half a century affect a culture’s psyche?
I once told a Korean friend that I’d set out on a quest to meet all of the most interesting people in South Korea. She allowed that she didn’t think Koreans were all that interesting.
I beg to disagree.
These essays were written during that first (what I thought would be my only) year in Korea, a time when I fell in love with the country and its people. I spent 4 years in Seoul, and later another 6 years on Jeju Island. I’m still living abroad 18 years later, now in my fourth country, embracing the world, trying to be a good global citizen. Korea was first — and will always hold a place in my heart.
—excerpted from Preface to Love Letters to Korea: A Year in Seoul, author Anne Hilty, ©2023