For American teacher, a time to renew tiesGEOJE, South Gyeongsang
David Alvord is a 61-year-old Idahoan who believes a part of his heart is Korean.
First arriving on the peninsula in August 1966 as a Peace Corps volunteer, he soon made Yangsan, a small country town in South Gyeongsang province, his second home. The tall, curly-haired, high-spirited 24-year-old soon became infatuated with the village ― even to the point of considering the toilet without a flush system an exciting slice of the new culture. On his return home to the United States in 1968, his intuition told him that he would someday return to Korea.
Time proved his instinct correct. Last August, Mr. Alvord returned to the country to teach English to teenagers on Geoje island, and to train English teachers there, under a program begun by the Korean education ministry.
While applying for the position, Mr. Alvord could name three places where he wished to work, but he only indicated one: South Gyeongsang province. He said he was overjoyed to hear that he would be stationed on Geoje island. “Things happen for a reason. I was meant to be on the island,” Mr. Alvord says.
He grew even more convinced of his fate after he noticed that the label on a purple tie with an Idaho potato pattern that he brought from home read “made in Korea.” His favorite teaching outfit to this day includes this tie.
On a recent weekday, Mr. Alvord strolled the halls of Gohyeon Middle School, in the island’s midsection, as students gathered around and greeted him, saying “Hi, David” and “How are you?” Mr. Alvord’s first project was teaching students to greet each other in English in the American style, rather than bowing in the traditional Korean style.
Teaching these teenagers, who rarely see foreigners, is no walk in the park, he says. So he applies a soft touch in his classroom. Instead of yelling at students to quiet down, he plays “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin or “Don’t Know Why” by Norah Jones. To teach plural forms, Mr. Alvord brings potatoes from Idaho, still covered with dirt, to the classroom and says, “From this one potato, we get many sliced and fried potatoes. Thus ‘fried potato,’ as the fast food restaurants say, is wrong.”
Mr. Alvord says, “Some would call me a clown, but I don’t care, for I believe this is the right way.”
Won Sook-min, who teaches English at Joongang Elementary School on the island, describes Mr. Alvord as “a happy wanderer.” She says “David is always open-minded, positive and energetic, giving inspiration to those around him. Children consider him not as a hard-to-please grandfather but as a friend who’s fun to be around.”
A friend is also what Mr. Alvord tried to be to Yangsan residents back in 1966. Teaching at Yangsan Agricultural High School and staying with a farming family whose two daughters had features that gave them the appearance of Native Americans, Mr. Alvord made himself at home. Sociable, athletic and talkative, Mr. Alvord, the only foreigner in town, set out to become a part of the community.
While other Peace Corps volunteers to Korea were dispatched in teams to bigger cities, he was stationed in a small country town. “The Peace Corps group considered me, a born mountain man from Idaho, to be the only one able to deal with isolation,” Mr. Alvord says. “And another thing was that I was full of energy all the time. Friends even today tell me that I have so much energy at 61 that they don’t want to know what I was like at 22.
“I wanted to immerse myself in Korea,” Mr. Alvord says. “My host family perceived me as an individual, not as an American guest, the way I wanted. They were so friendly and kind, like other Koreans I’ve met.” He adds, “I’ve never been a foreigner here.”
Mr. Alvord adapted well to the Korean lifestyle, eating homemade kimchi with chopsticks, taking off his shoes inside the house and using the same facilities as his host family. At least one thing he never did understand was why he was offered an envelope of cash at a rally for then-President Park Chung Hee. Yet he appeared cut out for the job. Mr. Alvord had quit the University of Idaho to join the Peace Corps, but in Yangsan he felt that it was the best decision he had ever made.
By the time Mr. Alvord became hooked on kimchi, he had made friends with students at the school. His students, influenced by American movies, wondered at first why their teacher was not some movie star, living in a posh villa with a swimming pool.
Instead, he taught physics, biology and English in a school without any heating or air conditioning. “During the class I was so cold, but I held back my complaints seeing students who were not allowed to wear shoes in the classroom,” he recalls.
Park Ik-kyu, a fellow teacher at the school, says, “How David adapted to the rural country was just amazing, which mirrored his personality ― naive, hale and hearty. Years passed, but he’s still the same. He’s an old boy.” Mr. Alvord moved on to Ulsan Technical High School and went back to Idaho in 1968 after finishing his Peace Corps stint, but he and Mr. Park remain good friends.
Back in Idaho, Mr. Alvord pursued many different jobs, which led him to travel to more than 40 countries. Whatever he did, however, seemed to have a connection to Korea. He once had a business deal with a Korean bicycle company. In 1985, he revisited Korea as an agent for track-and-field star Carl Lewis. But he felt that the best part of his life was the two years he had spent in South Gyeongsang province, when his monthly salary was no more than $45. “I’ve never been interested in making money. My goal in life is to make a difference,” he says.
He has tried to enrich his life by returning to Geoje island, which reminds him of Hawaii, where he did his Peace Corps training. He calls himself a “Gyeongnam saram,” meaning a South Gyeongsang native. His friends on the island, which reminds him of Hawaii, call him “Yangsan seonsaengnim,” meaning “a teacher from Yangsan.”
Quite naturally, he has not forgotten his first happy years in Yangsan, which is why he journeyed to the town last year for Chuseok, Korea’s Thanksgiving holiday. The town has not been immune to the effects of time and, rather than stay with a Korean family as he did the first time around, Mr. Alvord took up lodging at a yeogwan, a humble motel, and ate dinner at a Mr. Pizza.
But his trip paid off for him emotionally when he went to Yangsan Agricultural High School. “The moment I saw the buildings and the grounds, I could not help but cry,” Mr. Alvord says, his eyes moistening. Finding an old photography studio that had survived the years, he stepped into the place and was amazed to see a black-and-white picture hanging on the wall. It was of Mr. Alvord, dressed in hanbok, a traditional Korean gown, and taken during the 1960s.
Life on the island without a cell phone and computer could not be more agreeable to Mr. Alvord. Yet, there are certain times when he feels disconnected, such as when he called his 27-year-old daughter Regan on the pay phone on her birthday to hear her say, “It’s my crazy father in Korea. I love you, Dad!”
But he is happy and proud to be where he wants to be ― South Gyeongsang province, where people once looked at him as if he had landed in a spaceship. Now, as a well-liked English teacher, Mr. Alvord says “I gained so much more from Korea than I gave to the Koreans. I know that Korea is a country with few resources except its people but I make a point of telling my students to always be proud of being Korean.”
Mr. Alvord has come up with the idea of establishing an “English Corps” similar to the Peace Corps. “I feel indebted to Koreans,” he says. “Until the day I die, I want to contribute to Korea.”
by Chun Su-jin