Last updated on May 10th, 2022
By Amanda Burgess, Contributor
Living the ex-pat life in South Korea as a pre-teen cements a traveller’s love of languages and cultures
Ask any traveller who or what first inspired her to travel, and the answer will bubble up in her unbidden. So, we did exactly that. This month, three globetrotting JourneyWomen divulge their earliest travel inspirations, and the impact that travel had on their lives and adventures.
Karen O’B. was 12 when her father came home from work and announced that the family would be moving to South Korea for his job. A year later, Karen’s family was packed up and on their way.
“I was excited. It was 1972 and the TV show M*A*S*H was a big hit, so I couldn’t wait,” she says. “I thought I was heading for a true adventure, like Hawkeye Pierce!”
Photo of the main cast of M*A*S*H / Wikimedia Commons
It was the family’s first international trip and getting from Connecticut to South Korea was no small feat. It took five flights – Connecticut to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Honolulu, Honolulu to Tokyo, Tokyo to Oskaka, and from Oskaka to their new home in Busan.
“Just getting from Honolulu to Tokyo took 11 hours. We stopped in LA to visit Disneyland, spent a week in Honolulu seeing hula shows, beach bumming and eating banana pancakes with coconut syrup, and stayed overnight in Osaka where we slept in futons on the floor at the hotel,” she says. “On our flights, our meals were served with real silverware on real plates, and there was a single movie shown to the entire plane on the big screen—“Lost Horizons” in our case.”
Of course, reality hit when she found herself living in a traditional-style Korean home with charcoal heated floors and rice paper windows at the edge of a tiny rural village surrounded by rice paddies. In the 20-year aftermath of the Korean War, South Korea was still quite poor, and tourism wasn’t common.
“The people were friendly and resilient—and very curious about us. When we went shopping in the markets or visiting the stunning Buddhist temples, we were often the first foreigners anyone had ever seen, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to be surrounded by dozens of gawking Koreans everywhere we went,” she says. “Kimchee was everywhere, fermenting in large ceramic pots in everyone’s backyards, and everywhere there were villages full of soccer playing children, surrounded by rice paddies. We Western kids dug a hole under the fence of our expatriate compound and headed down to the village every chance we got!”
Karen’s ex-pat school was an hour’s drive away, set in a series of Quonset huts – remnants from the war – that were freezing in the winter. She and her classmates had to wear their coats, hats, and gloves to class and huddle around a heater.
“My eighth-grade class at its largest was 15 students, and at its lowest, eight as families were constantly coming and going. It was so small we were forced to get along with people we normally wouldn’t have been friendly with—a great lesson for a teenager,” she says. “Half the students were ‘army brats’ with the US military presence; the other half were from all over the world. I had friends from Sweden, Holland, Germany, Japan, England, India and Barbados. I was only in South Korea 14 months, but they were without a doubt the most influential 14 months of my life.”
Going to school in a multi-national setting opened Karen’s eyes to a much larger world. She was exposed to good things and great people from a range of countries and cultures. She yearned to visit all of the countries her friends were from – flash forward through the years, and she has for the most part.
“This experience made me forever curious about other countries and cultures, and ready to hop on a plane in a heartbeat, with a desire to wrap my mind and heart around as many different countries and peoples as I possibly could in this lifetime,” she says. “I learned that I could do anything I set my mind to. Everyone told me that the Korean language was impossible to learn, but I used to get Korean friends to read the billboards and street signs for me and soon figured out that Korean is a phonetic language and easy enough to read.”
She began teaching herself the language with the support of her friends, a Korean dictionary, and a steady stream of Korean comic books. She so craved to grow her proficiency that she boldly asked the principal to start a Korean language class. And in the spirit of ask and you shall receive, a Korean teacher was placed to teach the ex-pat students language and culture.
That ignited a lifelong love of languages for Karen. She has since studied French, German, Spanish and Japanese, along with maintenance on her Korean language skills – because Korea taught her that even knowing a bit of a country’s language can open doors to new friendships and experiences.
The poverty she witnessed in South Korea inspired her to devote her working career to supporting disadvantaged women and youth. She travelled to Haiti, Guatemala, Bolivia, Vietnam, China and South Africa, among other places, working with the people in those countries to combat poverty and achieve their dreams of a good education and secure employment.
“I discovered that the choices we make on how to live our lives can have a tremendous, positive impact upon the lives of others, and that a life devoted to the good of others is a life filled not only with deep personal satisfaction but also very often with a lot of adventure!” she says.
Those adventures have included visiting over 30 countries, marrying an Irish man and sharing European citizenship with him, living in Japan and Mexico, and – poignantly – going back to where it all began in South Korea.
Karen at a folk village museum in Sucheon, South Korea last spring / Photo courtesy of Karen
“I stopped there twelve years ago on my way back from a volunteer trip in Hanoi. On that trip, I actually started crying in the airport, deeply moved by the stark contrast of the impoverished country I knew as a teenager, and the wealth and success of modern Korea,” she says. “A young woman stopped to find out why I was crying, and when I told her, she started crying too, touched by my story and full of pride and emotion for her country and its road to success. My second trip back with my husband was very emotional for me – to visit Seoul and my old neighborhood in Busan. To see South Korea now a rich, thriving country, its rich culture and culinary heritage being celebrated everywhere, and to share that with my husband.”
“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.”
– Walt Streightiff
A child who is inspired to become a traveller never loses sight of this simple-yet-poignant fact. And she just might grow up to become a JourneyWoman.
Missed the first two installments? Find them here!
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Womens Solo Inspiration: Karen Finds "Family" in Brazil
Sue was 16 when she spotted an ad in her Kansas high school newspaper for American Field Service (AFS)’s Study Abroad programs. She wondered aloud if she could do this. As the third of six daughters, she wasn’t sure it would fit into the family budget. But the stories she read from other students were so exciting and inspring, she drummed up the courage to ask.
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Karen, amazing childhood memory! Thank you.