When I met Geri in Seoul in 2006, she struck me as being always cheerful and positive, but also definitely intelligent. After I left Korea in 2007 we kept in touch via Facebook and sometimes saw each other when I made my annual trip to Seoul. This interview took place over Skype, when Geri was in Seoul and I was in Manila. Thanks to Geri for the wonderful photographs.
I was raised in Idaho around Mormons and Methodist farmers—good, hardworking, solid German stock. Before me no one in the family had gone to college or traveled, except for an uncle who died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Wake Island. I went to the University of Oregon and got a degree in architecture, but the dysfunction of my upbringing derailed me and sent me off in a different direction.
By 2003 I was on my second marriage, which lasted 26 years, and I had four kids who were almost out of the house. I’d become a therapist—because that’s what you do if you’re looking for a way to fix yourself, right?—and I was working in a women’s recovery home in the Ventura, California, a beach town with a conservative edge to it. My husband and I had been in marriage counseling for five years, and it wasn’t working. We were $80,000 in debt. We had lost our business, our house, everything. He was working under the table, so I was the one the creditors were coming after. I spent a lot of time being very angry at him. He deserved a lot of it.
The moment came when we were in a Mexican restaurant and I was really pissed off for some reason. As I looked at him, I felt a wave coming over my body, and I thought, “You poor man. You’ve been living with this really angry person for all these years.” It was at this point that I truly took responsibility for myself. Then my perspective shifted, and said to myself, “I’m responsible for my own happiness.”
That was a huge thing for me. But then I got the brilliant idea to leave my husband, who was no longer in charge of my happiness, move across the country to Baltimore and reconnect with my old boyfriend from high school. I also wanted to get far away from my husband to avoid being stalked. By the time I got to Baltimore I was willing to tell a potential employer I would do anything, just hire me. I was hired as a mental health worker, which is a very hard job, for $12 an hour. But it got me back on track.
After I’d been there for a few weeks, I told an old friend, “Oh my God, I made a huge mistake.”
He said, “Get your career together, get your life together, get everything together, and when everything falls into place you’ll know what to do.”
That was in 2004. I put my head down and worked very hard in an on an in-patient treatment program for adolescents in a very big health organization. I stayed there for two and a half years and paid off all the debts. When it came time for me to leave, I was doing some networking, and I found out about treatment programs for the US military overseas. I called the program and said, “I’d like to go to Germany, please.”
I think this was about family tradition and trying to find some connection with my family line. My grandmother was German. In high school and college I took five years of the language in order to become a high school German teacher, but I quit because the education classes were so boring.
The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Ah, well, there’s no place there, but you could go to South Korea.”
“There are nuclear things over there, right?”
So I vetted it for a while and asked myself why not. I did some meditation and prayer. “God, you have to get me out of here. I want to go overseas. You have to help me because I don’t have the money and I don’t know what to do or where to go.”
I made a big “vision list” of what I wanted my life to look like: job, working conditions, house, car and relationship—all without reference to culture. I was very intent about it when I did it. Within a very short time I got a call. In July of 2006, I was on a plane for South Korea. I had no idea about moving overseas, but I was so desperate to leave Baltimore that I was willing to do anything.
My personality is such that I will be scared to death and do it anyway. I was terrified. I’d thought I’d had enough culture shock moving from California to Baltimore. Coming to Korea was a lot harder. After few days of being here by myself with no one to really talk to and no contacts, I decided to walk down the hill from my house and have dinner. I walked into a Korean restaurant and I saw all these slippers at the bottom of the little steps. I guessed that I was supposed to take my shoes off and put some slippers on. When I came marching into the restaurant I caused a big commotion. So they took me back to the entryway and made me take the slippers off. I was wearing someone else’s. That was the beginning of my fumbling my way through the first year in Korea.
Over here I felt like a cork on an ocean, bobbing around with nothing firm beneath me. But I just sat down and tried to do the best I could with my job. I really fell in love with Korea. I went on the Royal Asiatic Society tours all over the country. I loved the lectures they held twice a month, Tuesday night at the Summerset Hotel. I loved meeting all kinds of people, and I finally felt I had found my niche. I feel comfortable. When I was growing up I felt an affinity with exchange students and other people who were different. I loved trying to figure out the language. I took a couple of classes and learned hangǔl [the Korean alphabet]. I’d sit on the subway and listen to the announcer call out the stations and sound out the hangǔl, and that’s how I learned. I’d get taxis to take me places, and I’d watch how the driver got around. That’s how I learned to drive in Korea.
I’m a contractor for an international corporation as a counselor for military dependents in the high school on the US Army post at Yongsan. As a contractor, I live off the base. I don’t have as many privileges as a civilian working for the government, but I have commissary and PX privileges and SOFA status. I have a good job because I get to support the military by working with the kids who have mental health problems and academic problems. It’s a hard job. It’s stressful, but I feel that I’m serving a purpose, a calling. It’s fulfilling.
Seven years ago I met Chris, who teaches humanities, world history, psychology and sociology at the high school on the US Army post. I’d done yoga for fifteen years. I started learning Aikido from him and then studied under a Grand Master Nubuo Maekawa in Kyoto. I got my black belt. I think that’s has been very good for my self-confidence. It has also influenced my therapy. I’ve written a couple of articles for the Grand Master’s annual journals about it. Chris also talked me into getting certified in scuba diving. I had to kind of talk myself through my panic attacks, but I got certified. So I’ve done two things I’d always thought as a kid would be really cool, to be like a Jaques Cousteau and to be a ninja. I’m an avid photographer and I take a lot of pictures
My employer didn’t help me find a place to live but did steer me to a couple of realtors, and I got a place through them. I think I am a pretty proactive person. I’ve always been that way. If something has to be done, I just do it even if I’m terrified. I’m not really good socially in big groups, and I’m not that great about making friends. One-on-one I’m good, and with coworkers I’m pretty good. But in groups I feel hesitant—no, I need to change that. I used to be that way. I think Korea has changed me. When a taxi driver says, “Are you American?” I say, “No, I’m Korean.”
I do feel I have an Asian quality about me, but it wasn’t necessarily conscious. Some of my adolescent interest was very superficial, like the television show Kung Fu, an American action-adventure martial arts drama with David Carradine. I devoured the Chinese philosophy that was in that show. I was greatly affected by it, but I can’t tell you why. I always secretly wanted to be a Ninja. Then when I was in college I found the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu. I loved it and I used it a lot. I think it formed some of my early patterns of thinking. I’ve always just been drawn to reading books about China and Japan. Looking back I see I often didn’t feel an affinity with American culture. When I arrived I was planning to stay in Korea for only three years, then move to a base in Japan and try Japanese culture for three years.
Here’s the interesting thing. Remember the “vision list” I made in Baltimore? I got everything I asked for on the list except the fireplace in the house, and I have that now. I feel like my life is coming together, like all the puzzle pieces are coming together. I look back and those little bits and pieces that didn’t mean anything a long time ago, now they’re fitting together. I once felt very upset that I never used my bachelor’s degree in architecture, but now Chris and I are remolding the house we bought in Turkey, and it’s useful. In Turkey I’ll be near all that old archeological stuff. I can even use my German because of all the Germans living there.
At one point it seemed as if my life had been a total waste. I hadn’t made the right choices and hadn’t done what I really wanted. I just took second best. I settled for it because I felt I had to. Or because it seemed expedient. Or because people would approve. I’m the kind of person who will do what I think I have to despite how I feel.
I have a thing about going to temples. I feel thrilled. Such a sense of awe. In April we were planning to go scuba diving and we decided on the spur of the moment to do a temple stay at Haein-sa instead. At three in the morning we were sitting in the temple, and the monks came in chanting the Heart Sutra. It was such a high for me. I experienced great peace and a sense of well-being in that time. After Haein-sa we went on down to Tongdo-sa, which is supposed to have some Buddha relics. There’s something about being in those big temples on that sacred ground.
I’m very sensitive to energy. Inside a temple I can feel the shift and changes in energy. I think this sensitivity comes partially from being a therapist, partially having a history of trauma and partially from having done martial arts, Aikido and tai chi, for about seven years.
Chris and I are friends with David Mason, and whenever we can go along when he’s giving a tour or when he suggests going somewhere for the weekend. There’s just something about being around all that old architecture that is just thrilling for me.
Yes, I feel the mountain energy also. About two years ago Dave Mason called us to ask whether we could put up one of his friends, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer and a Buddhist scholar, Frank Tedesco. At the time we had a large, five-bedroom house. So we said sure. He ended up staying for a hundred days. Through him we met people who have become important in our lives.
Chris and I had this big house near Kyong Gee University, and we were thinking it might be nice to move somewhere a little more rural. As fate, or karma, would have it, we found a one bedroom house located on the side of a mountain, complete with a Zen Buddhist meditation hall and a dance studio. As we pondered whether or not we could let go of much of our stuff–it was much smaller than where we lived–so we returned home and measured and talked. We came back and measured and talked. Finally we said, “Okay, let’s do it.”
Since moving into our little house at the top of 72 steps, we have witnessed two shaman rituals. Above the house there’s a big rock carving of the mountain god. There are some traces of the shamans who were up here. The energy is really strong. We had a little kut, or ritual, when we moved in. The shaman and her assistants threw red beans all over the house, they put written blessings on the doorways, they threw bags of things around, they beat the drums, they butchered a pig and put the head on a plate. I still have the pig’s head in my freezer. I don’t know what to do with it. But I’m pretty familiar with shamanism now, a long way from my Methodist background in Idaho.
I have felt very happy and at peace here in this little house on the side of a mountain in the center of Seoul, but now my life has taken a dramatic turn. At four in the morning on August 10, I received a phone call from Chris’s brother, telling me Chris had been in a terrible accident in Florida. I learned later that morning that he had lost both legs to amputation. I flew to the US and spent the next three weeks living in a hospital room as Chris went through eight surgeries in 14 days. I returned home alone. We both have struggled to recover from and reconcile with this terrible trauma. As is my history and my nature, my warrior spirit has taken hold, and though terrified, I have pressed forward in faith of a path unseen, but fully laid out ahead of us. And this little house on the side of a mountain in the center of Seoul has taught me many deep things about the nature and the WAY (Tao) of life. Chris calls it his “unintended journey” and, of course, this is true for me also.
As I said, Chris and I bought a house in Turkey, which we’re remodeling and planning on livining in at least half the time. In Turkey I’m discovering all the old archeological stuff. Right below our house the Temple of Dionysus is being put back together. So just when I’m starting to get my Korean down I have to start working on my Turkish.
So that’s our life today. I’m here on the side of a mountain with nobody around, seventy-two steps from the ground level. At the moment there’s only me and the seven dogs and the 200 wild pigs that are protected by the Korean government. As for what’s ahead for us now, we are unsure, but we are certain that 2016 is going to be a SPECTACULAR year for us!
Sometime soon Geri and I plan another interview on the adventures she and Chris have had since the motorcycle accident which took his legs. Only eight months later he was up and walking.
Carol Dussere was a professor of English from 1984-86 in Xiamen University, Fujian, China and from 1989-2006 at Dongguk University in Seoul. The interviews and photos on this page were collected as a result of her experience abroad. She currently lives in the beautiful town of Tagaytay, Philippines, where she is working on two book manuscripts. ("Dussere" rhymes with "blue hair," which she doesn't have yet.)