Mack and Celia Webb Talk About Writing Seoul-Full Letters
Pilinut Press: You just released your seventh book titled “Seoul-Full Letters”. Tell us how you came to write this book.
Mack: Friends and family kept telling me how enjoyable the letters I sent to them from Korea were and that through the letters they learned interesting things about Korea and its culture. It was my wife, Celia, who suggested we put the letters into book form and add even more information on Korean culture.
Pilinut Press: Was this your first time living overseas?
Mack: No. Germany is another country of which I have fond memories. I had a wonderful time because I embraced the experience. Having enjoyed my time in Germany, I was delighted to get the opportunity to go to Korea.
Celia: I was stationed in South Korea from November 1985 to November 1986. In the intervening years before returning in 2000, Korea had changed quite a bit. When I first lived there, the country was preparing for the 1988 Olympics. In addition to building the Olympic venues, the infrastructure of the country was improved with new roads and bridges. Also many high-rise buildings were constructed. During the mid-1980’s, although you saw many Koreans wearing western clothes, it was not uncommon to see people wearing traditional Korean dress. Traditional farm equipment was still being used like the ox and cart for transportation although there were lots of cars and buses. By the year 2000, Seoul was a very modern city with lots of well-built highways and towering office and apartment complexes. People typically wear western style clothing with traditional Korean dress reserved for special events like weddings. Ox carts had disappeared. There are impressive traffic jams from all the vehicles on the roads and farmers, in addition to the hand labor involved, had small tractors suitable to the size of the rice paddies and vegetable fields being worked.
As Mack mentioned, we were also stationed in Germany for three years. Living in a country is a wonderful way to get to know it. You have more chances to visit different parts of the country, meet local people, and more time to experience all the country has to offer. We’ve also traveled to a number of other countries.
Pilinut Press: What impressed you the most about the Korean people?
Mack: Their total commitment in backing a single cause, as in the 2002 World Cup Soccer Tournament. The whole country of South Korea rallied in support of their team. The South Korean games were even televised within North Korea, never mind the fact it was an edited version of the original broadcast.
Celia: Their idea of community responsibility. During my first stay in Korea, I was traveling by bus from one city to another. A mother with an infant was also on the bus. The baby began to cry and refused to be comforted by its mother. So other Korean passengers passed the baby around, cooing and snuggling with the baby until it quieted down. These people were total strangers to the mother. Instead of trying to ignore the baby’s cries, these people tried to help both mother and child and succeeded. In the US an event like this would be unlikely.
Pilinut Press: You’ve included Korean proverbs in between your letters. Why did you decide to include those in your book?
Mack: To show that even though countries can be isolated from each other the wisdom and thought can be quite similar. I find the wisdom and cautions of past eras can still apply today.
Celia: I thought it was interesting to see that the human experience, despite the different trappings of culture, is similar and people recognize traits and behaviors that are common to us all. Each culture couches these truths in the terms that are most familiar to them.
Pilinut Press: What do you find most interesting about living in a foreign country?
Mack: Its cultural history, because it has shaped the current population of the country and it gives a greater insight of how to interact with the people I meet there.
Celia: I always enjoy learning how that culture solves the problems any group of people must face. Food, dress, housing, transportation, education of children, government, ethics, and social mores are all ways of dealing with the environment a group lives in and what resources they have available to meet these common human needs.
Pilinut Press: You took classes to learn to speak Korean. Why did you decide to do that? Isn’t it a difficult language to learn?
Mack: When I am going to live in a country other than the United States for any length of time, I try really hard to learn the language of my host country. In doing so I can engage in more interesting conversations with the natives, travel the countryside more easily, order things to eat, shop, and exchange pleasantries. Also, learning Korean was the polite thing to do. Learning the Korean alphabet and numbers is fairly easy. Stringing the alphabet together to form words and understanding those words is a lot harder. A Korean word can have several different meanings just like English words.
Celia: It is a difficult language to learn to speak fluently. However, it is always helpful to learn as much as you can of the language of the country you are living in because it helps you get around and it is the gracious thing to do. People of any country appreciate it when you speak in their language, even if all you can manage is “Hello” and “Thank you”. You’ve shown respect for their country and culture—always a plus.
Pilinut Press: What was the biggest difference for you between living in Korea and living in the United States?
Mack: The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Who knows when North Korea may decide to advance to the south? There are many celebrations in South Korea that involve huge fireworks displays. Initially, each display sounds like incoming artillery, especially when jolted awake by it.
Celia: Living in countries which feel under eminent threat of attack is very different from the way most of us feel in the United States. Even after the events of September 11th, 2001, the U.S. does not have the same level of underlying tension as a country with hostile neighbors does. When we lived in Germany before the USSR collapsed, the Germans were very aware of the possibility of attack. The infrastructure of the country included mined bridges, tank traps, and other protective measures. Korea is the same way. There are defensive measures built into the ordinary objects (roads, railways, bridges, and so on). Armed troops are stationed and visible at airports and road intersections. The military forces are conscripted, not volunteer as in the U.S. Every Korean male serves on active duty in the military for at least 2 years and then in the reserves into their 60’s. The closer one lives to the DMZ, the more restricted your lifestyle with curfews and limits on where you can live and work.
Pilinut Press: What had you thought about Korea prior to living there, which proved to be different once you were there to see for yourself?
Mack: I imagined the streets and rice paddies would be thronged with ox-carts and oxen driven by men wearing traditional Korean clothing. This is because when Celia was stationed in Korea in 1985, she sent me photos of oxen-powered ploughs in rice paddies and ox-carts sharing the avenues with motor vehicles. I saw no ox-carts during my stay and tractors are currently the plow-horse of choice. However, I did see one rice farmer tethered to an ox and slogging through a paddy, but at the time I was on a tour bus whizzing by him. I am very much interested in traditional, organic farming techniques and was looking forward to discussing these with farmers in Korea.
Celia: One myth that was quickly debunked is that of the inscrutable Oriental. I believe that myth arose from early Western visitors to the Orient who didn’t understand the cultural clues in their interactions with Korean, Chinese, and Japanese people. I found the Koreans to be a passionate people, who felt their losses keenly, and their causes strongly. It is part of the culture to preserve “face” for everyone. A Westerner may end up interpreting this as inscrutability, or dishonesty, or even lying. To the Easterner, it is of paramount importance to maintain harmony both between people and inside each person. Also a Westerner may not be familiar with the cues of distress or disagreement which an Easterner might use. One example of a cue which might be missed is the sucking of teeth to indicate disagreement, even though the words spoken will be conciliatory.
Pilinut Press: You write about Korean food quite a bit. Why did you find it so interesting?
Mack: Simply put, Korean food is delicious. I didn’t always know what I was eating, but yum!
Celia: I think food is central to every culture. The diet will reflect the historical influences and what is locally available. Since food is critical to survival, food ranges from those dishes developed when food sources were scarce to dishes reflecting times of plenty. It is interesting to see how many plants and animals can actually provide sustenance. Korean foods show a tremendous variety of source material and ingenuity in preparation.
Pilinut Press: What advice would you give to someone going to live in a foreign country?
Mack: Understand there will be pang of homesickness. You may experience fewer pangs if you greet your host country with an open mind and a willingness to explore. Carry a phrase book, bottled water, hand sanitizer, and a packet of tissue with you on your outings. Avoid any activities that draw the attentions of the local constabulary. Don’t be afraid to partake in the local cuisine. However, know that it may take a few meals before your digestive tract adapts if you eat foods which are new to you. Keep anti-diarrheal caplets handy.
Celia: Learn about the customs of the country and at least a few polite phrases in the local language to help ease your adjustment. Visit local historical, cultural, and other tourist attractions. Take guided tours when you first arrive to get the lay of the land and then strike out on your own. Enjoy learning about how other people live and work. It’s an adventure!