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Thursday, January 28, 2010

A bookworm's dream home

Jan. 28 (Jeju Weekly) The Baramdo Library, which owner Park Bum Joon says is Korea’s smallest library, has one unique feature that will be welcomed by keen readers. It has a sleeping space in an alcove above the bookshelves, so readers can take their time browsing their chosen material.

Opened by Park and his wife, Jang Gilyeon, in 2007, the facility receives about five visitors a day, mostly from the Korean mainland. Its opening hours are from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, although there is no attendant or librarian on hand.

“They come in and they can read a book, and then go,” Park said.

It is not a lending library but there is comfortable seating at which to read the books, either at a Western-style table and chairs or seated on the floor at a low Korean-style table. There are also drinks and souvenirs available on an honesty system, and visitors sometimes add to the collection by leaving books behind. Although fewer than 10 books are available in English, I noticed a few that I could happily while away an afternoon reading.

Jang, whose interests include traditional dyeing and sewing, can sometimes be found in the library teaching the Korean style of hand-sewing, called bojagi. The process is calming and relaxing and appears deeply meditative, as the students focus on their delicate needlework.

One of three students taking a lesson on the day I visited told me that she feels the stress she experiences as a middle-aged woman dissolving since starting the classes.

“Someone can find himself or herself by this process because it needs very tight concentration,” Jang said. “I have a happy time by sewing and teaching the skills.”

Owning a library was a long-term dream for both Park and Jang, and was inadvertently sparked after a documentary on their life in the mountainous village of Muju, in mainland Korea, made them reluctant media stars. In 2005, we were on TV and a lot of people came to see us,” Park said. “They wanted to see how we lived our daily lives and our way of thinking. It was the hardest time of our life.

“I wanted to live my life with my writing and my wife wanted her sewing and dyeing, and we were interrupted by all the visitors. We had to make a choice, if we would hide from the public and go to another mountain or a more remote place, or we could find a way to communicate with the public without interruption. “

The library was their answer to that dilemma.

“I think the place is very important,” Park said. “If we had a cafe or a restaurant or a pub, there would be a totally different communication by the place. We decided to make a library because a library is a calm and cultural place, and we both love books and had a dream to have a library, where I can write and she can sew.”

The library is focused on travel, both in the physical and spiritual senses of the word. The couple own almost 3,000 books but only have room to put about 1,200 on the shelves. A staircase leads to the sleeping area that will become a guest house, although thus far it has only hosted friends of the couple.

“Our library is not a lending library and it takes some time to read a book,” Park said. “Some people asked if we have lodging and we found we have the upstairs of the library. Some of my friends used the guest house and they were very satisfied.”

A family of four has been the largest number of guests to stay and Park said the children, especially, enjoyed both the books and the visit.

Asked to explain the name of the library, Park said Baramdo, or Baram Island, has more than one meaning. “Baram means wind but it has another meaning in Korean - that is wish. I want my wish, my baram. Baram, wind, never stays in a place - it goes everywhere and it’s always changing. And wind means freedom - freedom, change and wish.”

All those meanings seem appropriate for a place that has given them the freedom to change how they communicate with strangers and fulfilled their wish.

“If we have to communicate with somebody, the easiest way for us is through books,” Park said. “So the library is like our communication place with other people.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Learning at home

Jan. 20 (Jeju Weekly) If a talented marketer were to imagine the perfect poster children for home-schooling, they would be hard-pressed to improve upon the real-life Nicholes family. Currently residing in Aewol, Jeju, siblings Benjamin (15), Anna (13), Daniel (11) and Abby Lou (7) are bright, personable, and totally engaged with the world.

All four are confident, self-assured without being the least bit annoying, respectful, considerate and interested in others. And none of it is an act, that is obvious from the moment one first meets them. They answer questions easily, taking their time when needed, and are open and welcoming whether showing a new acquaintance through their home or sharing a newly written poem, as youngest Abby Lou did proudly.

But let’s rewind a little. I got to meet the Nicholes children, mother, Rhonda, and family pet, Tag (father Steve was out when I visited), because I’d been told they were home-schooled and I was interested in what that involved.

And I admit to having some preconceptions about home-schooling - that the parents who chose it are usually heavily involved in religion or a cult or simply want to disconnect from the world, and that the children risk receiving an inferior education or, conversely, being pushed too hard academically, and probably lack social skills.

Ben, Anna, Daniel and Abby quickly proved me wrong on most of those points. They are more adept socially than many adults I know, obviously well-educated (mother and teacher Rhonda has a degree in Education), and in no way disconnected from the world. Only one of my assumptions had any grounds, whatsoever, as the family is proudly religious.

“We are mission-aries,” Rhonda said, and it is their mission that first brought Steve to Korea in 1988. Rhonda joined him in 1991 after their marriage and the three youngest children were all born in the country (Benjamin was born in the United States). It is also that mission that brought the family to Jeju Island on Aug. 1, 2009, where they will build a bible study school. (For more on that, see an upcoming Religion series in the next issue.)

And their religion is a large part of why the family chose home-schooling, but far from the only reason. “The biggest [reason] is that it allows us to be the greatest influence on our kids and to pass our values on to them,” Rhonda said. “But also, home-schooling is just so flexible. You can be anywhere and you can do it. It’s totally not dependent on your location or what educational options are open to you.

“We are not anti public education. That’s not where we’re at. If we needed to send the kids to a school, we would do it. If what we were doing at home wasn’t working, then we would do whatever we needed to do.” Neither Rhonda nor Steve were home-schooled and Rhonda uses her own experience at public and private schools in her teaching. “Because I’ve been in a formal school setting, I am able to tell the kids what they can expect in college or if they ever do go to a school before that time. Sometimes I incorporate it by sharing experiences that I had that they should follow, or try to avoid.”

Another reason they chose to home-school is the high cost of international schooling, something that Rhonda and Steve could not afford on their salary, which is provided by “friends, family members and churches in the States.” “I spend about $1,000 a year on curriculum,” Rhonda said. She buys the curriculum once, for Benjamin, the oldest, then uses it for his younger siblings also. “Over the course of 12 years, that’s $12,000,” she said.

“The international school near where we were in Gyeonggi-do, the last time I checked, was $6,000 a year for one kid.”

The curriculum is provided by a U.S. company called Sonlight, and includes lesson plans that make Rhonda’s role as teacher easier. “It was originally started for missionaries but a lot of other people are using it now,” she said. “It takes more of a world perspective.

“Most U.S.-based curriculum companies, it’s American this, and American history, and that doesn’t have a lot of practicality for where we live. This company takes a much broader world view and shipping overseas is not unusual to them.”

And although the Nicholes’ family’s home schooling is flexible, it is not sloppy. “There are lots of different types of home-schoolers,” Rhonda said. “There’s the free spirit home-schoolers who wake up and if they don’t feel like doing it that day, they don’t do it. That’s not our style. We do take it very seriously. There’s a certain number of weeks a year that we have to do, and we get behind if we don’t keep up. So we do have a structure.”

In terms of exams and moving up grades, Rhonda assigns the grades but also keeps portfolios of the children’s work and detailed records. “They need to take a standardized test every year” she said, “which we order from the States.” And from the beginning of the 9th Grade through 12th Grade, essentially the high school years, the records become more important as they will count toward acceptance to college. “We’ve got a college transcript worksheet that we’re working off,” Rhonda said. “Because I only have one high schooler, even that aspect of it is new to me.”

She and her husband are very conscious of providing opportunities for their children to socialize with others outside of the family, and view church as an important point for that. Before moving to Jeju, the children also had a lot of involvement with young adult Asian students at the school their parents started.

“I do think friends are important, so we do work on that,” Rhonda said. “But I will say that in public school or even private school situations, often the socialization they’re getting isn’t necessarily healthy. We do want to protect them from that, but not to an extreme.”

Asked if they can see any disadvantages to being home-schooled, the two oldest children, Benjamin and Anna, considered it carefully.

“I think being home-schooled and living overseas, there is a bit less opportunity to socialize with kids,” Benjamin said, “but I’ve got friends in several different places around the world - in the U.S., in Japan. Actually, when we get the school started, I’ve got two friends I know who are college-age who will be coming here.”

Monday, January 4, 2010

Science Made Easy

Jan. 04 (Jeju Weekly) When I first picked up “Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes,” by Park Bum Joon, I expected an informative text about Jeju’s three UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites. As expected, the book provided this, but it also gave me so much more. Park has looked not only at Hallasan Natural Reserve, the Geomunoreum lava tube system and the Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak) tuff cone, collectively added to the UNESCO list in 2007 as Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes, he also provides an enjoyable and highly readable book on Jeju in general.

Park opens by first introducing UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - and listing Korea’s eight World Cultural Heritage sites. The Jeju properties are the country’s first and, thus far, only sites to be designated World Natural Heritage sites.

The author then goes into greater depth on Halla Mountain and Jeju, citing a local saying that, “Hallasan is Jeju, and Jeju is Hallasan.” He does not concentrate on the National Park alone, however, but includes information on the formation of the island and its primary and secondary volcanoes, detailing both the local legend of Grandmother Seolmundae creating the island and the more scientific geological origin.

The book is published by TheBeetleBooks, who also print the useful and entertaining Beetle Maps, in conjunction with the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province. Like the maps, it is scattered with cartoon characters and caricatures, which the reader can relate to while being both entertained and educated. Different characters, drawn by Moon Soo Min, pop up throughout the text to explain unfamiliar or scientific terms, or merely relate anecdotes.

Visually, the book is a work of art, with beautiful full-color photographs provided by the provincial government, augmented with Moon’s quirky cartoons and skillfully drawn illustrations by Kim Min Kyeong. These include representations of the island’s distinctive flora and fauna.

I have perused many publications on Jeju Island in my years of involvement with Korea and was pleasantly surprised to consider this the best I have found. Park explains scientific concepts and processes in terms suitable for any layperson and the text is interesting and accessible throughout. I had the pleasure of meeting the author early in December and he explained how he came to write the book.

“I didn’t know anything on natural history at all,” he said. “I was curious. They [the provincial government] wanted a person who was not an expert or scientist - a common person. I tried to learn and understand stories about volcanoes and culture on Jeju Island.”

Which he explains plainly for a layperson like myself, but I was concerned it might be a little simplistic for more scientific minds so asked for an opinion from an acquaintance of more scientific bent who has read the text. He wrote back that he found it “quite enlightening. I doubt even a small fraction of non-Koreans anywhere could fail to be educated by what’s there - nor even many Koreans off the island.”

I agree with his statement and purchased five more copies to send to friends overseas to show them where I’m living now. Five wasn’t enough, and I now need to order more.