The Experts and the Expat

  • Photo by Photo by Ruth Williams for Seoulist

    Photo by Ruth Williams for Seoulist

As our tour group trudged up a winding path in the woods, our guide, Brother Anthony, pointed to small green plants nestled beneath a canopy of bamboo. Those inconspicuous shrubs, he explained, were wild tea plants. The plants’ presence wasn’t unusual for this region, growing as they did near the town of Gangjin in South Jeolla Province, on a slope commonly known as “Tea Hill.”

Still, in the wild, tea is hardly noticeable from any other leafy green; however, it was easy for Brother Anthony to spot the plant. It turns out Brother Anthony, one of the foremost English translators of Korean poetry, professor emeritus at Sogang University, and current president of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch (RASKB), is also an expert in Korean tea.

Given the breadth of his knowledge about Korea as well as the history of Westerners in Korea, Brother Anthony is a natural choice for president of an organization that, as he explains, “aims to help people enhance their understanding of the arts, customs, history and landscapes of Korea through lectures, tours and publications.” 

It was courtesy of RASKB that I found myself trudging up “Tea Hill” as part of a tour of several temples, museums, and other sites that would help me get to better know South Jeolla Province, a “Land of Tea and Exile.”

Founded in 1900, the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch is the longest running organization devoted exclusively to the scholarly study of Korea. Appropriately, the RASKB logo features several unusual Chinese characters that Brother Anthony indicates roughly translate to: “Korea deserves to be better known.”

It was courtesy of RASKB that I found myself trudging up “Tea Hill” as part of a tour of several temples, museums, and other sites that would help me get to better know South Jeolla Province, a “Land of Tea and Exile.”

On this portion of the tour, we were headed up the “road of roots,” a steep dirt path covered in a latticework of knobby tree roots, to reach the mountainside home of Dasan. Forced to leave Seoul in 1801 as a result of his family’s connection to Catholicism, Dasan spent his 18 years in exile drinking tea and writing books on politics, ethics, economy, natural sciences, medicine and music. Not only were we able to see the stream from which Dasan collected water to brew his tea, as well as the rock in front of his house where he would sit to drink it, we walked the same picturesque path he took to nearby Daeheung-sa temple, where he spent time with Hyejang and Cho-ui, two Buddhist monks who helped revive Korea tea culture in the 1800s. As I reached the opening in the woods where the beautiful red and green temple sat, the sound of a monk’s chants spiraling down from the main hall, I couldn’t help but catch my breath—not from fatigue, but from the cinematic beauty of the scene.

While there are certainly other tour companies that offer expats a slice of Korea, the sites listed above aren’t the sort you’d commonly encounter on such trips. Rather, RASKB tours offer a glimpse of Korea that would normally remain hidden to most expats simply because these sites aren’t the ones we read about in guidebooks. Not only does RASKB show us the hidden gems of Korea, since the tour leaders are experts in their fields, they’re able to offer invaluable insight into these sites and subjects, creating a rich experience that goes beyond the usual tourist fare.

RASKB not only features overnight tours such as the one I participated in; they also offer day-long excursions in and around Seoul, interesting theme specific events such as shopping and food tours, and monthly lectures about a variety of topics. Recently, RASKB has started two special study groups, one on Korean literature in English translation, and the other on how to take better photos. And Brother Anthony says more may follow, depending on the members’ interests. You can find a list of upcoming RASKB cultural excursions, lectures, and events on the RASKB homepage.

The final destination on “The Land of Tea and Exile” tour was the small town of Byeongyeong, where, from 1656-1663, Dutchman Hendrick Hamel, along with 35 crewmates, was held in the town’s fortress after being shipwrecked on the shores of Korea. Escaping after 13 years of captivity, Hamel later published an account of his experience, effectively introducing Korea to the European world.

While the town boasts a museum, complete with a life-sized Dutch windmill, what caught my eye was another “insignificant” detail Brother Anthony pointed out as we strolled along the village walls. Pointing to the “herringbone” style of rock-laying that formed the walls around us, Brother Anthony explained that scholars believe the Dutch taught the Koreans this construction method as it is common in Europe, but does not appear anywhere else on the Korean peninsula.

Encountering first-hand this physical mark left by some of the earliest Westerners in Korea, I couldn’t help but ask myself: what mark will I leave on Korea? And, what mark will Korea leave on me? 

Indeed, for this expat, the benefit of joining a RASKB excursion or taking in a RASKB lecture is not only the opportunity to learn about Korea from the experts, but also it also gives me the chance to ask—as I did on those streets of Byeongyeong—what it means for me to be here.


Ruth Williams

About Ruth Williams

Ruth Williams is a Ph.D. student in English Literature and Creative Writing, Poetry at the University of Cincinnati where she is also earning a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In 2011-2012 she is at work on a poetry manuscript exploring U.S.-Korea relations as a Fulbright scholar in Seoul, South Korea.

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