Stopping in Korean woods

IT happens almost every time it snows. I can be dashing from one errand to another, trying to squeeze in a trip to the grocery store before it closes, when a few soft snowflakes glance across the car windshield and quietly transport me back to a long-ago winter in Korea. Although nearly 20 years have passed since I took my first solitary stroll through the woods at Tae Nung, I can still hear the crunch my boots made in the crusty snow and the soft susurrus of the wind in the elegant Asian pines.

Eighty of us, just out of college and raring to see the world, had spent three months that fall learning all we could about Korea for a Peace Corps teacher-training program. We'd been drilled in Korean language, history, geography, music, art - even table manners - for 10 hours a day, six days a week. And we'd thrived on the frantic pace, eager to soak up every fact and inflection that was tossed our way.

We arrived in the bustling capital city of Seoul in January and plunged into several weeks of practice teaching, taking advantage of the winter school vacation to try out our newly acquired skills on the students who had volunteered for the impromptu English classes. That done, we had been bused and jeeped to the provincial colleges and universities where we would spend the next two years. Although my assigned school was only an hour's drive from Seoul, I felt suddenly marooned.

After so many months of such intensive living, I was alone - and the solitude was overwhelming. My luggage was in transit, and I had no books to read, no paper to write on, no radio or tape recorder to listen to. Because it would be three more weeks before any other teachers or students arrived on campus, there was no one to talk to, even if I had been fluent enough to carry on a grammatical conversation.

There was nothing to do, it seemed, but go for long walks.

Our campus spread around the crest of a smallish hill, and I could have wound my way down through a number of breaks in the surrounding woods and rice fields to the handful of shops that clustered around the bus stop. The path that intrigued me day after day, however, led into a national forest preserve.

The snow was deep that winter and the going was slow. But as I set out each morning after breakfast, carrying a makeshift backpack filled with apples and crackers, I fancied myself quite the explorer. I didn't have to blaze my own trails, but I did need to pay close attention to the rainbow-colored signposts that sprouted beside the path like clusters of iridescent mushrooms. My grasp of Chinese characters was minimal at best, and I didn't want to miss the turn to the royal tombs.

I'd come upon the burial site on my first outing. Set on a moderate rise in a carefully chosen clearing in the forest, the mounded-over tombs resembled hundreds of others that dotted the Korean countryside like so many dozing turtles. What gave the site its particular appeal were the larger-than-life-size stone statues that stood nearby on silent guard.

They flanked the tombs on either side, one a scholar and one a soldier. Decked out in splendid robes and headdresses, with curlicued designs that boasted of the stonecutters' art, they both bore the same enigmatic expression - one I hadn't seen in Western art. It spoke to me of infinite patience and tolerance. The Mona Lisa gone Confucian, perhaps.

I ended up spending a lot of lunch hours in that forest clearing. As the winter vacation drew to a close and I got the first flutterings of stage fright at the thought of facing a classroom of students, I began to look forward to my daily hike and picnic. It was a quiet interlude, a break away from the busy schedule that I could feel building up around me. A few weeks in the woods had finally compelled me to stop and enjoy the view.

And what a view it was. Standing beside the tombs, I could see for miles around. Tidy rice paddies and winter barley fields filled the foreground, and beyond those the hazy smoke of noontime cooking fires wound slowly toward the horizon.

Then there were those two stone statues. How many centuries they had stood, I could only guess. I learned that they were called the ``twin ranks'' and represented the king's official military and civilian advisers. But I couldn't help wondering about their vigil: What were they supposed to teach? Who would come to listen? Why there, in those forgotten woods?

Once the new school term began, I didn't have much time to spend in my secluded clearing. There weren't too many lunch hours when I could put my feet up and crunch on an apple. But I'm thankful the questions remained.

In fact, I began to ask similar questions about my own role - at the school where I'd been assigned for two years, and in other destinations and tasks that followed. Even today, each gentle snowfall helps to remind me to stop and ask and listen.

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