Happy to be back

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Happy to be back

Joan Hubbard, the wife of the United States Ambassador Thomas Hubbard, has a way of welcoming a guest as if the person were an old friend. She loves to share personal stories -- how she ended up hanging one of her paintings sideways, what she likes to drink on warm days (iced tea with a slice of lime), why she delights in making festive occasions out of simple menus (serving bindaetteok, or Korean-style patties, "right off the grill") and why she insists that travelers leave Seoul to discover the real Korea.

Mrs. Hubbard enjoys explaining the history of the Habib House, the U.S. ambassador's residence in Seoul. The residence, it seems, is not spacious enough to accommodate all her friends and family members who constantly visit her in Korea.

She's tireless when it comes to appreciating what her life has offered. Dressed in a seersucker blue pants suit, ornamented with a Chinese amber necklace, she laughs easily while keeping her blue eyes fixed on her subject.

Simple yet substantial, her presence seems to embody the quintessential American spirit of graciousness and strength.

The JoongAng Ilbo English Edition recently talked with Mrs. Hubbard about her life in Korea.


Q : What are the most memorable event in Korea since you arrived in last October?

A : The World Cup! What an experience! We were so lucky to be here during this time. I was so impressed with the cultural aspects that made the opening so special. We co-hosted, along with the American Chamber, the U.S. team and their families at a barbecue after the first United States game. The players and their families were thrilled to be here and be a part of the World Cup. We traveled to all the U.S. games, giving us a wonderful opportunity to see Daegu, Daejeon, Jeonju and Suwon. Our daughter was visiting us, so it was a thrill for her, too. And of course we watched all the Korea games, too, and joined in with the crowds at City Hall. The fireworks, the cheers, the children with their little faces painted and the absolutely clean streets in the morning. The Red Devils and the fans were fantastic; I will long remember the spirit and pride of all the many thousands of fans. We even had friends visiting from Costa Rica, who literally got off the plane, dropped their bags at our house and were on the train to Daejeon, to see Korea win.

Last November, my friend Virginia and I went to visit a Korean Buddhist temple. As a typical foreigner who doesn't know Korea, I was anxious to learn about the place. It was before the Temple Stay programs were organized, so I was lucky enough to have a Korean friend who made arrangements. We stayed in a small temple outside Mokpo in South Jeolla province.

My friend, who is Korean-American, often visits Korea, but she has never gotten out of Seoul. We took the train, so we could see the countryside. Once we got there, we were impressed by the beauty of the country. We woke up at 4 in the morning and prayed. Six students called on the seunim we stayed with. With the seunim, it was difficult to ask and answer questions about Buddhism; we felt we needed to have an interpreter. But our one night and two days stay was wonderful.

The beauty, sanctity and tradition, the tradition of welcoming especially, are not readily found in many countries. One of the on-going traditions includes hospitality shown to travelers; Koreans provide travelers with a place to stay and meals so that they can refresh. That's Korean people's generosity, and they really open up to you. Those who want to know and are interested can discover all that by just getting out to the countryside in Korea.

I'm sure it would be hard on monks living today to go without changes. It feels very restorative to be in the temple, and it is good to go back from the modern capital, to see what hasn't changed and experience the simplicity of things there. Most temples these days have modern facilities such as bathrooms and showers, but we cannot expect the super deluxe hotel at these temples. Hot showers are not available, but washing in fresh water is important.

Korea can offer what foreigners can enjoy, and the country's culture is rich compared to America. We are truly fascinated with what we see and learn in this country.

Is this your first time visiting Korea?

No, I came to visit Korea in 1970. When Tom and I were in Japan, we spent two good years studying Japanese at the Foreign Service Institute in Yokohama. Later, when we were posted in Fukuoka, Tom and I, with our infant baby, took our '69 gold-colored Mustang to Busan and began a 10-day journey across the Korean peninsula. We spoke not a word of Korean, although we were fluent in Japanese. From Shimonoseki, we took a ferry to Busan. We stayed one night and two days there. There was a highway, but we took different local roads to the countryside. We stopped at temples, such as Bulguksa temple in North Gyeongsang province, and at Korean inns. We still remember the gorgeous autumn leaves of late October in Songnisan. Everywhere we went, we were surrounded by Korean people marveling at our baby. The trip was enjoyable and really wonderful. We hiked in the Korean autumn's cool and brisk weather; I remember those brown kimchi jars in the back yard, persimmon trees with their orange fruit hanging and warm floors. In the countryside, there was nothing but mountains, beaches and fields, but so much has changed since then. On our way back to Busan to return to Japan, we took the new expressway; there wasn't much traffic then.

Last October, I went to Busan for the first time in more than 30 years for the annual memorial service at the UN Cemetery. I found the service extremely moving and a very vivid reminder of our shared history. And, I was shocked by the changes. Who would have thought that we would be living in Korea 30 years later?

You've been in Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines before coming to Korea. Do you find Korea different from other Asian countries?

I've compared every Asian culture with Korea, because I've known a Korean friend since I was young. Hwa-ja or Virginia -- that's her American name -- was the only Korean family in Washington. We had met when we were 12 or 13, but didn't become really good friends until we were 17 or18. We did all kinds of crazy things together. She had gone through an identity crisis. Even if she lived in the United States, she used to often say, "I'm Korean! I'm Korean!" I saw her mother always cooking Korean foods to Korean people who had come to Washington, as there were always people visiting my friend's home. These Koreans, who had never met Virginia's father, Dr. Choi Je-chang, would look him up, and he would help them get settled in America.

Virginia attended the same college in Vermont as I did, and after graduation in 1965 we shared an apartment in Georgetown. When we were living together there, Virginia used to fix me nureunbap (scorched rice) for breakfast, which was a natural thing for us because we cooked the rice but almost always burned it. Soon after that I got married to Tom, who had just been serving in the foreign ministry. I was only 23. After we got married, we went to the Dominican Republic on our first post. Virginia came to see us. Everywhere we went, she came to see us.

Hwa-ja married after that, when she was about 30, to a Korean student studying architecture in the United States.

Do you still keep in touch with Dr. Choi?

Of course. Dr. Choi is like my father. When I married Tom, Dr. Choi treated him like his son-in-law, and my parents did the same for Dr. Choi's family. I call Hwa-ja's mother "Eomma."

Dr. Choi is 95 and still plays golf. He has a remarkable memory and is as sensible as any young man. When he visited the American Embassy last April, he suddenly grabbed a doorknob at the embassy and said that he felt all his feelings from that day 70 years ago when he applied for a visa.

In fact, he is vigorously working on a project that can bring a sense of identity to Korean-Americans. He discovered an old house that was built by Joseon Dynasty Koreans. It's a 1900-style town house in Washington, and now it's for sale. He's working to see if the Korean government should purchase it for Korean-Americans. I'm all out to support him. We think it should be a museum, a place where Korean-American children can go see the history of their ancestors in America.

What is most important on your agenda these days?

One of my challenges is to learn Korean. I've been studying Korean, but I'm helpless and hopeless with the language. I have taken a break as it got too busy around here. But, I still intend to give my best effort to learning the language of the country that I am living in and, that for now, is "home."

by Inēs Cho

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