Standing atop a massive observation deck in South Korea, I was overlooking the man-made border cutting Korea in two. The immediate boundary was clear. The dark, desolate, depressing landscape of North Korea stretched out for miles in front of me. For the first few hundred yards, there were no trees and no bushes; nothing but dirt. Life had been stripped from the land to discourage North Korean citizens from escaping the oppressive militant dictatorship. In the distance, mountains and thick forests blanketed the landscape.
Nearby, a place called, “the bridge of no return,” marks the ominous passage point where Koreans of the early-1950s were forced to choose which side of the border to live on. Those who picked North Korea were rarely, if ever, seen again. It was a place where fathers left sons, siblings were separated, and daughters abandoned mothers. It was a place where families were ripped apart, severing more than just countries, but the very fabric of the human soul.
The overlook is located in the national park of Imjingak on the banks of the Imjin River in the city of Paju, near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). South Koreans come to mourn lost family members of their most desperate brother country. It is a somber place of suffering and loss. To symbolize their grief, South Koreans have left thousands of notes of love and longing on brightly colored ribbons to family members relinquished to the North.
This trip to the DMZ was one of many profound experiences encountered in my month-long teaching assignment at Ferris State University’s sister school, Dankook University (DKU). DKU is literally set in the side of a mountain about 50 miles south of Seoul, in the Gyeonggi Province. The setting is beautiful. A narrow, wandering, river-like waterfall flows down the center of campus. At night, the cascades are lit up and made even more impressive with randomly located mini-fountains. Rich forests on rolling hills surround much of the local countryside. Ponds, flower gardens, statues, and large-scale art pepper the campus, creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere. At the base of the mountain sits a small, busy city offering a multitude of retail and restaurant options. It is nothing like, and yet peculiarly similar to, west Michigan. For example, my first stop in any store was a 7-Eleven, and ironically, the cashier was wearing a Michigan State t-shirt.
“Going Beyond” isn’t simply about travel; it’s about being touched by the experience. It’s about becoming a more engaged, enriched, and educated person. Teaching and living in South Korea was a transformational experience for me. My heart and mind were opened to the beautiful land, culture, issues and people of South Korea. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness… charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” To be transformed, you have to be willing to be changed by your experience. When you sign up for international travel, you will be called to go beyond, and it will be the best decision you’ll ever make.