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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Stranger in a strange land

Dec. 26 (Jeju Weekly) When graduate student Iskandar Makhmudov arrived at Jeju National University in February 2008, it was to begin his first long stint of living away from his home country of Uzbekistan.

“It was not so easy at the beginning,” he said, to come to a new country where he needed to cope with language and cultural difficulties while also undertaking an intensive course of study in renewable energy technologies.

“There were many cultural events at the university for Korean students,” he said, “they’re organized, they’re very active. But the situation with foreign students was vice versa. Definitely, foreign students could also join but there was no information about how to join.”

Makhmudov could have simply accepted the situation as it was, but instead took it upon himself to unite the existing small informal groups of foreign students under the banner of the Jeju National University International Students Organization, or JISO ( Founded in March of this year, JISO’s mission is twofold: “to promote the well being of international students” at JNU and to support “interaction and under-standing between international students at Jeju National University and the people of Jeju, Korea.”

The organization has around 15 active members, Makhmudov said, from Bangladesh, China, India, Japan, France, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and Uzbekistan. There are a further 250 foreigners on a mailing list, the majority of whom are from China. JISO has hosted about 12 events so far this year, including its members working as volunteer guides for a trip to Jeju Dinosaur Park with a local orphanage, and joined members of the Korean Graduate Students Association to walk an olle trail. The group also has an early New Year’s party planned on Dec. 23 before most students go home for the end of year break.

Makhmudov said that for his first few months on Jeju, it was difficult to overcome his feelings of homesickness, which were amplified by the language barrier and cultural difficulties.

“When someone comes to another country, usually they first try to find their country members or some other close social group. In my case my communication with people during that time was very limited. But after some time at Jeju National University and on the island, I met many nice people who helped me to adapt to my new place for two years.”

In his role as foreign students’ representative, Makhmudov described existing social problems he identified at the university.

“One example is the registration system for courses and other administrative services, which are all in Korean. It creates some difficulties for international students with a low level of language proficiency.” An added problem for students from Islamic countries is the lack of a mosque on the island or even a prayer room at the university. “In addition, the University canteen menu is not always compatible or acceptable for them.”

Such problems are not specific to Jeju National University but found at most universities across Korea, he said. However, it can simply be a matter of mutual intercultural understanding to find a compromise, and he has found this with his fellow graduate students.

“When going out with a group of lab mates,” Makhmudov said, “they already know that this person doesn’t drink, this person doesn’t eat pork.”

He said the university tries to help, for example by supporting students with health insurance refunds and holding events for students during the year, but international students would like to see more concrete decisions aimed at improving their social life from the university administration.

Makhmudov has enjoyed his time in Jeju, which is scheduled to end in February.
“Korean life has taught me to be more independent -- I grew up a lot during this period,” he said. “I can say that if to compare before and after, my viewpoint to the same things also changed extremely. This experience made me confident in my ambitions and I strongly believe it will be useful in my further endeavors.”

He believes JISO will continue to grow and that the organization will make life easier and more enjoyable for international students in their temporary home.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Environmental Warriors

Dec. 16 (Jeju Weekly)
It is a somewhat ironic critique of our current age that in seeking peace and serenity, Park Bum Joon and his wife, Jang Gilyeon, became unwilling media stars. The couple was the focus of a 2005 KBS documentary, “My Life Couldn’t Be Better,” which showed their simple farming life in the mountainous village of Muju.

The resulting attention drove the pair from their mountain retreat but has ended happily, with them finding a spiritual and material home on Jeju. They are now giving back to their adopted hometown by opening the Baramdo Library in Waheulri near Geomunoreum, and Park has recently published a book on Jeju’s UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites. He also writes a column for the Kyunghyang daily newspaper about environmentally conscious lifestyles and is planning another book on life on Jeju.

The KBS documentary, part of the “Human Theater” series, was screened five separate times and brought the couple a throng of visitors. “The TV [program] made a lot of change for our lives,” Park said from his Waheulri home. "Because, you know, Korea is a small country and the mountain in Muju is isolated, but people from Seoul could come to my house in three or four hour’s drive. So our small house in the mountain got crowded.

“The house was very small and uncomfortable but we were happy because there was no one else around there. But 40 or 50 people every day came to see us. I feel we were kicked out.”

Seeking a home where they could again enjoy their solitude, Park and Jang visited Jeju in November 2006 and found the house to which they moved a month later. “When we met this house,” Park said, “we felt it was ready for our dream of a small library and a guesthouse.” The island has an added advantage also. “Jeju Island has a barrier from the mainland,” he said. “Most of the people in Korea live around Seoul, like half the population, so the sea is a great barrier for us.”

Surprisingly, Park was initially very much a driven city-dweller, having started a venture company in wireless Internet services after his graduation from Seoul National University. “I quit it in a day,” he said. "I went to the mountain with my wife and I started to work for an NGO and I started writing and I longed to farm.”

He said it wasn’t easy to explain why he changed, but a holiday in Mongolia where he lived in a ger - the small traditional Mongolian tent - with a wooden stove contributed to his environmental awakening. “It was my first time to see the horizon,” he said. “I was impressed that there could be another kind of life other than working on a computer 12 hours a day, seven days a week.”

He had also just met his now-wife, whom he described as “prepared for an environmental life.” Jang, a slight, beautiful woman who radiates calm, had spent three months in a Buddhist temple when she was younger and found it inspirational. In addition to the Baramdo Library, which is the smallest official library in Korea, the couple’s home boasts the dreamed-of guest-home and a garden where they grow herbs and a variety of vegetables, including pumpkins and peppers.

Park said when people ask if they will stay on Jeju the rest of their lives, “My answer is always, ‘I don’t know.’ But I believe if I go out to the mainland or other centers for a couple of years, I will be back to Jeju. I feel like it is my hometown.”

Having found that hometown, Park is concerned with helping it retain the essence that attracted him and his wife here, and his last environmental column was on a cable car system proposed for Biyangdo, an islet off Hyeopjae Beach. “I believe that Jeju Island has to have a philosophy that is slow and sure,” he said. “Many people from the mainland say that they have found a cure on Jeju Island. When they walk along the seashore, it’s a very unfamiliar experience for them, just like when I was in Mongolia. They can find something in themselves.

“I think this is the most important value of this island for Korean people. Cable cars or big casinos or big spas, that can be somewhere else - that’s not for Jeju.” He said that a 60-story building planned for Jeju City - “They say it will be the landmark of Jeju Island” - was also a poor match for the island. “Some people just want that kind of thing because we don’t have it here and I think there’s something wrong [with that],” he said.

“If we feel the good things we have and we don’t envy the things we don’t have, it will be a very peaceful place.”