Junior Year Abroad

When talking about study abroad, sometimes I share with students that “my father did his junior year abroad in Korea.” Reactions vary. With the popularity of the current “Korean wave,” some students feel that his experience must have been pretty “cool.” Others show little interest at all. Few, if any, figure out that his “junior year abroad” in Korea was actually a stint in the US Army during the Korean War. He was, in fact, drafted and served while pursuing his B.S. degree at the University of Minnesota. Although my mother gently encouraged him to share his experience with family as he got older, my father never did before passing away in November 2011. There were only bits of factual information we had gleaned over the years. He traveled to and from Korea on a troop ship, stopping in Yokohama en route. The winters were cold and miserable. The food was awful. There were few very laughs, unlike depictions from the TV series M*A*S*H (Altman’s movie version seemed closer to the experience according to my father).


Broken Bridge over the Yalü

It’s highly problematic, of course, to associate military service overseas with study abroad. But during our recent trip to Dandong 丹东, China, which lies on the Yalü river 鸭绿江 across from North Korea, I could not help but think about how different my father’s experience must have been while stationed on the peninsula. Here I was with a group of students and my colleague traveling on a comfortable bus to the border. There are still obvious reminders of the war, such as the “Resist America, Aid Korea” 抗美援朝 museum in Dandong and the Broken Bridge 断桥, which was bombed in 1951 but still stands today, spanning just over half way across the Yalü River from the Chinese side. But our trip was safe, fun, and touristy. We got very close to the border on both the ground at the Eastern Great Wall and during the Yalü River boat cruise. We even had the opportunity for “illicit” contact with citizens of the DPRK. Halfway through the river cruise, our tour boat stopped and a black North Korean skiff pulled up beside us to offer “forbidden” North Korean goods for sale. I made my purchase using American dollars, which are in high demand on the black market there. 

It was not the first time I had met North Koreans. While studying Chinese at Peking University, I made several good North Korean friends, including a student surnamed Kim. He had a great sense of humor and liked to joke that he was the King of Albania. We talked about many things, including the possibility that our fathers may have fought against each other during the Korean War. How much better it was that we could have a beer and hang out together while studying abroad. How different the experience was than our fathers’ generation.

Sign on Chinese side of river. The forbidden item being throw to the Korean side is

Sign on Chinese side of river. The forbidden item being throw to the Korean side is “food.”

Study abroad is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the world and more about oneself. Although international people-to-people exchanges and interaction alone won’t prevent future wars or military conflicts, they are a possible means to break down, at least, certain misconceptions and stereotypes about others. Adding a human dimension to what may otherwise be an abstraction is a good first step to better understanding others and other cultures. Although study abroad may not be for everyone, it’s easier and more comfortable than ever before; no matter how challenging or difficult, it’s certainly bound to be a much better experience than my father’s “junior year abroad.”

Dedicated to the memory of my father. Requiescat in pace.


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