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Useful And Fantastic: Korea As It Was - 5

...Their dancing enthralled me. I have seen Australian toddlers bouncing around to music. These children, boys and girls, moved like entranced ballet-dancers; they pretended to be birds with such grace that I held my breath. It was perfectly spontaneous, free movement that they made up to the music...

Val Yule continues her account of life in Korea before a fierce war tore the country apart.

Like the work of Ozymandias, the great piers of an unfinished viaduct loomed over our suburb, as the Japanese had left them.

Australians welcomed us, and we had a good, plain Australian meal, with “Army tropical spread” (ugh) instead of plastic-packed margarine. The old mission building was still drab and sparsely furnished since the war, but it was a friendly place, with Koreans constantly coming and going. Its very simplicity probably helped them to feel more at home than they did in the normal Western “palaces”.

New houses were being built by the “Chinese Gospel Construction Company”. We explored them, and I soon had my future household complete in my mind’s eye. We wrote home and told the family to come and visit us next spring in our fine new home.

The next morning was Sunday. I wish the church service at home was more like the Korean. Nobody wore a hat to distract the rest of the congregation and fill the owner with vainglory and anxiety about whether it was going to fall off. Nobody dressed up or wore nylon stockings, which was just a well, as everyone sat comfortably on the floor. There one can wriggle and curl up much more than in a chair or pew, which was just as well as the sermons were very, very long, and the prayers often longer.

In medieval fashion, the sexes sat on opposite sides of the church, which further prevented distraction of the young people. The old folk crowded in to the front to hear better in the places of honour; mothers all came, and sat at the back with their children, feeding babies when necessary, or even all the time. This was a very good idea. No baby cried or made a disturbance, although little coos, chortles and grunts added to the general happy atmosphere. Now and then a toddler would be taken outside for a little while.

The Korean pastor preached in his own language. I took in as much as I usually do. Afterwards I found myself alone with two dear old ladies. I greeted them in Korean, and at once a crowd collected, whispering, “She speaks Korean!” After that, I just had to muster up my two weeks study, and gave them everything I knew. I was pleased to find we could make ourselves more or less understood to each other. I simply grinned as intelligently as I could when they talked to me, and was pleased to find that only once did their intelligent grin betray that they did not understand me. So I told them that I was a very bad speaker, just learning, thought Korea very beautiful, everything very good, wasn’t it a lovely day, and thanked them when they said anything and bowed deeply and wished them goodbye, as I had exhausted my vocabulary, and made my retreat with a boy who spoke broken English.

The next day, one of the Australians took me to see the very fine kindergarten she had built up from nothing, and I stayed there while she went to prison to help the prisoners.

The kindergarten methods were up-to-date, and would compare more favourably with most Australian kindergartens. The Korean leader was born to her work; there were six or seven trainees, most of whom had attended the kindergarten as children themselves.

The sixty odd children wore anything from blue seersucker frills to beggar’s rags. Many of them had red splotches where their mothers had dabbed them with magic medicine, i.e. mercurochrome. They were lovely little things, although some of them were obviously underfed.

Their dancing enthralled me. I have seen Australian toddlers bouncing around to music. These children, boys and girls, moved like entranced ballet-dancers; they pretended to be birds with such grace that I held my breath. It was perfectly spontaneous, free movement that they made up to the music.

Most of their songs were Western children’s tunes with Korean words, and most of their picture books were Western too, with Korean writing down the side, as Korea has not any published kindergarten material. The directress was making picture sets with Korean children in them to help fill the gap.

Although Korean people and houses are so different from Western, it was interesting to find that the Korean children, left to themselves, drew exactly the same sort of people and houses that Western children draw, and had the same methods with colours.

In Free Play, while some drew, and some played trains or dressed cosmopolitan dolls, I looked at the picture books with half a dozen little boys. I knew the names of most of the common things in books, and would simply point, and say, “What’s that?” or “See this,” or, if necessary, “Don’t”. The little boys followed, and chattered eagerly about each picture. I wished I knew what they were saying when they reached the corsets in the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalogue. But it was the children’s clothes that made them really laugh. “Funny children, oh, the funny children,” they spluttered at the underwear and party frocks.
They sat on the floor, with their dirty little feet on the books, but they did not tear a page, they turned them over so reverently. The eldest was about five.

At the end of Free Play, they carefully and sociably packed away the toys at once.

My fraternisation unfortunately led one of the teachers to think that I knew Korean. She came up to me and chatted at twenty to the dozen for some minutes before I could muster sufficient of the language to explain that I couldn’t follow one word.

Outside the boys too old for the kindergarten and too poor for school gazed enviously through the windows. It was planed to turn the old house into a community centre that would help these unfortunates. Then too, the mothers’ club associated with the kindergarten, as Miss W’s means to teach hygiene, child care, and community responsibility, was to expand into a regular Baby Health Centre.

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