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Robert J. Fouser, Hanok village keeper

One of his favorite foods is bibimbap, a bowl of steamed rice mixed with a variety of namul (greens) and red gochujang (red pepper paste). His eyes were glued to the TV when he watched the made-for-television period drama The Deep-Rooted Tree, which deals with how Sejong the Great (the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty) created the Korean writing system called Hangeul. His evenings are often spent chatting about this and that with neighbors over makgeolli.

This is the life of an average Korean middleaged man today, and also the life of Robert J. Fouser (51), a native of Michigan. In 2008, he became the first foreign professor of the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University to instruct undergraduates and graduates in methods of teaching Korean.

“What is wonderful about Hangeul is that it’s extremely easy to learn,” says Fouser. “It’s a bit difficult to combine the letters, but the letters themselves are really a piece of cake. If you know the consonants and vowels, there are no words you cannot read even if you have no idea what they mean. I mastered Hangeul in three days, but learning Chinese characters or the Japanese writing system takes a long time.”

Mesmerized by Seochon Hanok Village

What brought him deep into the heart of Korea? He earned his bachelor’s degree in Japanese language and literature from the University of Michigan (1983) and lived in Japan for about a decade (1995-2006). In between, he studied Korean intensively at Seoul National University for a year (1983-1984). Some years later, he found himself teaching English at Korean colleges, and some years after that, teaching Korean in Japanese at Japanese colleges (2006-2008). He finally came back to Korea to settle in 2008.

Fouser is equally as intrigued by Hanok as he is by Hangeul. He founded the Seochon Neighborhood Society a year ago to launch a campaign to preserve the Hanok village.

Seochon (lit. Western Village) is a neighborhood west of Gyeongbokgung, the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), composed of over ten smaller neighborhoods clustered together. It may seem somewhat surprising that a foreigner should be at the vanguard of the movement to preserve Seochon, which retains in its ambience the memories and history of the Joseon Dynasty.

When your reporter for KOREA asks him why he is so interested in Seochon, his eyes light up with passion.

“The older you get, the more you yearn to communicate with old memories and the past,” says Fouser. “I like Seochon since it is still as I saw it in the 1980s, when I came to Seoul for the first time. Old signs, narrow alleys, detached houses with gardens, and all those things make me feel the Koreans’ warm and generous affection for fellow human beings known as jeong.”

In recent years Seochon was threatened by reckless development. Fouser’s heart broke at the thought of old Seochon being bulldozed to the ground ostensibly in the name of redevelopment and progress. This prompted him to roll up his sleeves to keep Seochon intact. He could not just sit idly by and watch the charms of the past be destroyed. The Seochon Neighborhood Society mainly comprises residents of Seochon. They hold biweekly meetings to collect information on their village and discuss ways to preserve it.

This June marks the first anniversary of the founding of the society. Its members plan to publish a historical map of Seochon and explore every corner of the neighborhood. They will also get the society registered as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). Fortunately, Seoul City has instituted protections for some Hanok districts.

The magic of the Hanok madang

Robert J. Fouser lives in a Hanok, not in Seochon but in the Bukchon Hanok Village, a neighborhood between the two palaces of Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. He had lived in Seochon for one year, but left three years ago due to his disappointment with the myopic development of the area in a craze to make money through real estate. Bukchon has been subject to more rigorous zoning regulation than Seochon, so its Hanoks are better preserved.

His Hanok has three rooms and a courtyard of a sort in the middle called a madang. A Hanok in the Seoul area is usually in a ㄷ-shape or ㅁ-shape, and the enclosed space is a madang. Not found in Western houses, the madang in the middle is a third space that has seemingly magical qualities about it. In a Western house, indoor and outdoor spaces are clearly divided, but a madang can be both an indoor and outdoor area. This affords great convenience in many respects. He uses his madang to grow trees and greens and keep a dog.

“I used to live with another person in the same house with the madang between us,” recalls Fouser. “Since a madang is a shared space and divides the house into two independent spaces, we lived together comfortably. When my foreign friends come to Korea, I invite them to stay at my place, and they love it.”

Saying he knows every nook and cranny of Seochon like the back of his palm, he guides your reporter here and there through the neighborhood, pointing out its quaint charms. He sometimes stops in front of a house and boasts that friends live there. When he says he is moving back to Seochon later this year, his face beams with a broad smile.

*Article from Korea Magazine (June 2012)

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