Monday, July 11, 2011

My Life in Korea

Some of you have asked about my life, particularly my travels, and how they've helped get me to where I am today -- making pretty things. Next year, when I start writing my memoirs (!) there will be SO much more to tell.  But for now, I'll start with the beginning.  Here's a pictorial view of my life in South Korea, 1988-1991.  It's a long post, but I hope you like it.

(all photos by me, pre-digital camera age)

Once, I was asked by a magazine editor to write about my "artistic journey”.  This stumped me.  I thought, WHICH journey?  The journey I take each day when I sit at my table to design?  The journey it takes to find my creative self in the midst of a chaotic life?  Or the journey I took to get to this point in my life, where I make pretty things for a living?

I thought it might be interesting to flesh out the latter — how I ended up where I am today, where I have the absolute joy of actually making a living making jewelry.  It’s a strange, convoluted journey, with lots of twists, turns, and almosts, and it will tell you a little more about me, and in the end, why my jewelry is so eclectic, and doesn’t adhere to one given style.

I’ll start with my first real-world job.  It’s as far from jewelry design as it could possibly be — four years in the US Air Force as a Korean linguist.  I'd always been told there wouldn't be much money for college, but I didn't know that "not much" meant "none", and even with a scholarship to American University, it just wasn't going to happen.

Joining right from high school, I spent a year at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, CA learning Korean, eight hours a day, five days a week.  I absolutely loved California, and tried to make the most of it with no car.  I managed to see Big Sur, went to Carmel Beach often (where I got the worst sunburn of my entire life), and found that rocky Asilomar Beach was the best possible place to run to when I needed to free my brain from the crushing difficulties of studying a complicated foreign language.


I'd studied Latin, Spanish, and French in high school, but I'm a visual learner, and until I learned the Korean alphabet, I was sunk -- I couldn't replicate what I was hearing the native-speaking instructors say.  It all looked like dashes and circles to me!  I very nearly flunked out of DLI until I finally mastered writing the language, and I quickly caught up to graduate with a 94% average.

After language training in California, I spent six torturous months at Goodfellow AFB, TX, deep in the middle of nowhere -- again, with no car.  I was tasked with learning the military side of the Korean language, and more than I ever wanted to know about military equipment.  I say the months at GAFB were miserable not because of the classes -- I actually thrived and won a Student of the Month award -- but for bureaucratic and personal reasons that I'll just leave for the book.

In July of 1989, I donned my blue uniform, and began the long, long flight to Osan Air Base, South Korea.  Rather than fly a commercial flight, where I might have kicked back in the comfort of, well, comfortable clothes, my military orders had me boarding the Flying Tigers, a military transport line that soon was sold to FedEx. 

When I landed on base, I was terrified.  First, there was the heat.  Oh dear God.  I'd grown up in southwestern Virgina and was used to humidity, but after nearly 20 hours of flying time (with stops in  Oakland, Alaska, and lastly, Yokota, Japan, where we weren't allowed to get off the plane to stretch our legs), I was really hoping for some A/C.

Secondly, there was the purple smoke.

From the bombs.

I had no idea WHAT the hell was going on, but there were minor explosions, purple and green smoke in the air, and, as we were driving to our Orderly Room by jeep to check in, I noticed everyone was running around in flak vests, canteen belts, chemical gear bags, and Kevlar helmets.  This was NOT what I'd been expecting.

I was nearly in tears.  I was the girl that came in last in gym, for crying out loud.  I broke a leg in Basic Training just trying to RUN for Pete's sake.  How was I going to last this out?

Thankfully, this was not the norm.  I was seeing a particularly rousing military exercise and was told they rarely lasted more than three days.  Or so.  And we didn't have them that often.  Usually.

Well alrighty then.  After all, I did join the military.  Even if I did join it out of anger at finding out I had no college fund and a desperate desire to get out of the town I grew up in, I DID raise my right hand and promise to deal with purple smoke.

Chemical warfare exercises aside, Korea shaped me into who I am today.  I showed up fresh-faced with a mind like a sponge -- an open book ready to change my life.

Lori, age 20, South Korea

I decided to jump into everything with both feet.  Some of my peers stayed on the base, only venturing off base to the local bars or to their homes if they didn't live in the dorms.  Me?  I got lost plenty of times, but I always found things that were amazing and cool.  

Back then, I only had a cheap camera, and I often forgot to take it with me.  I remember getting HUGELY lost one day out with a friend, out in the rice paddies behind the house I eventually lived in.

Behind my house, down the road a bit
We'd wandered into the countryside when we came upon a group of older men doing some sort of Tai Chi.  My friend and I stopped short, as if we'd hit an invisible wall, taking in this (to us) amazing sight.  We couldn't have been more than a mile and a half from jets taking off with afterburners blasting, but in this small circle of grass in the trees, there was peace and calm.  

No one in the group said anything to us.  No one stopped and stared.  They just kept making their slow movements, communing with their minds, bodies, and nature, and after a few moments, my friend and I quietly turned and left, not speaking to each other for a long time afterward.

I could never find that clearing again.

Another thing I explored were the many alleys and streets of shops and markets.  South Korea is known for sweat shops -- there's no getting away from that, and I saw one first-hand (more of that in the memoirs).  But if you take an extra turn or two, you can find the places the Koreans shop -- the non-tourist shops, shops without tennis shoes and jade figurines and cheap clothing.

I would wander into the kimchee alleys (like the one above), and I can tell you, you know you're in love with Korea when the smell of dozens of different kinds of pickled and spiced what-nots make your mouth water.  I'd sit down at tiny "restaurants", little more than a couple of cheap kitchen tables and five or six stools, and order something to eat.  At first, they'd always ask me if I was sure.  After a while, though, they got used to me, and when I started dragging my braver friends to join me, they would even save special "treats" for me.  

In most cases, I didn't ask what they were and just gamely swallowed.  When in Rome... or in this case, down Kimchee Alley.....

But of course, most markets weren't like this, and were a ton of fun to go into and buy from.  I mean, where else can you buy squid jerky?  (Look to the left side of the photo).

This is a street in Seoul, South Korea -- done up a bit prettier than my town of Songtan, with the trees, but how about that parking!

Housing in Korea took some getting used to.  In the large capital city of Seoul, about an hour's bus ride away (if you were lucky) there were some truly amazing homes.  In Songtan, the town outside of Osan Air Base, things were a bit more humble, and in some cases, really appalling.  Having lived for a few months in the jungles of South America, I'd seen poverty and poor living conditions, but it never ceases to make me stop and give thanks for what I have, even when what I have can fit in two suitcases.

Houses in Songtan so close together roof tops touched.

Houses in Songtan -- usually a family would live on the first floor, and the second floor was another house entirely.  For a while, I lived in a house similar to these.

Tons of power lines everywhere.  

Houses in a Seoul neighborhood looked a lot nicer than where I lived.

I also took advantage of bus trips.  While I was stationed in Korea, only people ranked Technical Sergeant or higher could own a car, and if you owned a car, you TRULY were taking your life into your own hands.  Sure, they had stop lights, but red meant go if you dare, green meant merge across three lanes without looking, and yellow meant hold onto your ever-loving hats because we're passing that bus!

My favorite trip was to Mount Sorak.  This mountain range was incredible.  The hike was phenomenal, with waterfalls and in most areas, tons of trees and plants.  When we came up to the actual peak, though, things changed.

Holy crap.

To tell you there was a cable car from the bottom of the river bed to the top of the mountain would defy logic, but there was indeed a cable car.  However.  There must be different rules for allowed steepness between countries, because I have never, ever in my life experienced such a thing.  Crammed butt to back in this tiny compartment, we creaked at an impossible angle up and up and up.  I shut my eyes and tried to hold my breath but the trip took longer than I could hold it all in.  I've never been so scared in my life.

Thing is, I thought the cable car was taking us to the TOP.

But oh no.  Not quite.

We had to climb up a rope to get to the top.

So here I am -- I've braved the Cable Car of Death.  And I really want to say I've been to the TOP of Mount Sorak.  So I asked the guy who was nonchalantly holding the bottom of the rope, who would intermittently shout, "NEXT!" in Korean, if I had to come back down the mountain the same way -- by the rope.  Because if that was the case, there was no possible way I could do it.  Looking down at the steepness, all the way down where that cable car had started, was not an option in this Airman's book.

"Oh no," he said, then shouted, "NEXT!" to an older woman in dress shoes.  (DRESS SHOES.  I kid you not).  "You walk down the other side."

Okey dokey.  Let's giddy-up.

I get to the top.  And it's so worth it.  Silence, except for the beat of a drum, somewhere out there.  There are Buddhist monasteries throughout Mount Sorak, many built into or around the caves in the mountain, and someone was beating a single note, as if for a chant, and it was magic.  This was indeed Korea, and well worth the knee-shaking trip up the rope to get there.

Now to walk back down, leisurely enjoying the scenery.

Wait.  What?

Where the bloody -- where the hell is the PATH?

Why, HERE it is!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen.  That is what passes as a path on the mountain.

Continuing my adventures off the beaten path, I got a job teaching conversational English at the Animal Breeding Institute.  At least, that's the English translation.  These men were geneticists, scientists, breeders, and executives at the Institute -- quite different from the schoolchildren I'd expected to teach when I signed up for a gig.  And what an amazing group of guys!  They took me under their wing and before long, they had me come in early so they could help ME with conversational Korean.  After all, I could talk tanks and airplanes all day, but that wouldn't get me far with table talk.

Before I left Korea, they gave me a going-away party...

... and took me to a museum where I didn't see a single American.  It commemorated the occupation of Korea by Japan, and one of the older men told me that it was built so they would never forget the atrocities. He expressed sadness at the youth of his country, how he felt they no longer cared about their history, and he was surprised to learn that it's not just the teenagers of Korea, but really, everywhere.

And of course there was no way I could leave South Korea without a visit to the DMZ, where I saw first hand what North Korea looks like -- at least, what North Korea wants everyone to see.   More of that in my memoir.  North and South Korea are technically still at war -- many people forget this.  It's impossible to forget it after a trip to the Demilitarized Zone, though.

View from the new bridge into the DMZ of the old bridge into the DMZ.

So we have adventures in eating strange foods, living in houses that probably wouldn't pass inspection in the US, exploring mountain "paths", teaching English to men who breed animals, and tucked-away museums.  Korea was indeed a time of exploration in many ways.  Not only did I start to figure out who I was, but who I could be.  And after years of living in painful solitude as a child and teenager, I learned the new joy of friendships.

Living in a foreign country in a military community is quite different than working on a base stateside.  In the US, you go to work and you go home.  You go to Walmart, take the kids to the mall, visit your relatives.  But when you live so far away from home, and on a tour that is still considered a hardship tour (meaning, families aren't automatically shipped with you -- you're on your own for a year), family takes on a different meaning.

Co-workers became not just friends, but family.  Every weekend, someone had a party on a roof top (and before you think we're all stark raving nuts, let me explain that the roof of most houses in Korea is flat and have stairs up to them.)

I spent many, many nights out dancing and hanging out with friends and co-workers.  Some of my co-workers gave me advice I follow to this day. I'm still in touch with many of these amazing people.  And, of course, while I didn't know it at the time, I met my husband while stationed in Korea.  It just took us nearly ten years to meet each other again.  Funny how fate works out.

This has probably been the longest post I've ever written, but so many of you have emailed me and asked about this part of my life.  It seems no where close to my jewelry-making life, but in a way, it is.  All of those different paths I took while living in South Korea are analogous to the many paths my jewelry designs take.  I don't stick with one style -- I like to play and experiment with this bead or that component.  Some pieces are like teaching English to a bright group of men -- more subdued, with elegance and class.  Some pieces are like climbing Mount Sorak -- full of daring.  And some are like the Lori that loved to dance in the clubs, alone or in a group -- playful and exuberant.

Life is cool that way.  So is jewelry.

Thanks for reading!


Lori Anderson creates jewelry for her web site, Lori Anderson Designs, and wrote the blog An Artist's Year Off.  She's also a contributor to Art Bead Scene.  She is also the creator of the Bead Soup Blog Party.


  1. I can't wait for the book- such a beautiful soul and what an amazing journey.

    Thank you for sharing so much of it.

    Warm regards,

  2. Wow, Lori, what a wonderful post! And you have some interesting photos. That cable car ride would have scared the heck out of me. Do you have a time-line on your memoir?

  3. Very nice!!! Thanks for sharing!

  4. What an amazing life! Thanks for sharing, Lori. Any your pre-digital pics are awesome. And how funny is it, that you met your husband there and it took you 10 years to meet again. As i said - amazing.

  5. Lori, I have no words. This fascinates me how this lead you to "Pretty Things." When your book gets published I hope to get a signed copy.
    Thank you for taking the time to write such a poignant post and share it with us.

  6. Love this post! Thank you so much for sharing! And, your pictures were awesome!

  7. What an adventurist spirit you have. (I just gotta tell you I spelled that one right the first time) Anyway I can see how you have taken it all in and made your own in this world and we are all the better for knowing you! Thanks for sharing this intimate part of you!

  8. This was so interesting and so beautiful. The journey of you! I'm sending it on to my husband because he would find it just as interesting and to my brother who was also in the AF. Fascinating. Can't wait for the memoir!

  9. Thanks, Lori, so very much, for sharing this information about your time in Korea! Always fascinating to read about that part of the world!

  10. That was an amazing read, and I would love to read your book, so please keep us informed about when it is coming out.
    Thanks for sharing some of your lifes adventures.


  11. What a wonderful life you have lived!! Such a Journey! So I know you are really going to open your Sons eyes to the marvelous world out there. I loved the pictures, and the food in Korea must of been something else. Thank you for sharing all of was a great read!

  12. Lori, I enjoyed going back in time with you to the days long before we met. I can see why these were such memorable years - you could write a book on these four years alone! The pictures are amazing & it was cool to see YOU in late 80's early 90's mode - ah, the glory days! Thanks for sharing a huge part of your past.

  13. These pictures are AWESOME. I love old photos!

  14. Loved this post! Can't wait to read your book! I found it very cool to see that tiny part of that stage of your life and how it translates into your jewelry. Which by the way I love because I think you are a great example if an eclectic style that totally rocks. It's such an encouragement to see in action!

  15. That was amazing Lori. I'm not a traveller nor an adventurer by any means, but this post gave me a little thrill of insight into what it must be like to feel as you did then.

    (Also, you are very adorable in those photos)

  16. Oh my gosh, this brings back so many memories of the letters and care packages you sent me while you were posted there.

  17. Fascinating, amazing, captivating, inspirational...thank you so much for sharing this with us Lori. You are an incredible woman and I admire (and envy!) your lust for grabbing what life has to offer!!

  18. wow, great post. I've tried to learn Korean b/c my husband is Korean-American. So far, failure :) But we're taking our first trip to Korea this year to visit his parents so maybe I will pick up a bit more then.

  19. What an adventure :) Loved all the old pics too.

  20. Such amazing adventures, Lori! Thanks for letting us experiencing a bit of your cosmopolitan life! I have never traveled outside the Western hemisphere and only then to a select city in Mexico and the Carribean. I am in awe of what you did and how you did it. Just amazing. Thank you so much for sharing!
    Enjoy the day!

  21. Lori, I'm just catching up with my favourite blogs after moving and trying to settle in. My son spent 3 years in Korea at Ft Humphreys. In many ways it changed his life. My husband has a set of ceremonial bokken that he sent home to us. I would love to visit Korea, such a paradox of culture and experience.

    Your trip up the mountain reminds me of my son's similar trip up a mountain. Hiking, hiking, hiking...up, up, up....breath taking photos he sent us. He kept hearing bells as he went and was quite puzzeled. At just about the top, he came upon a Buddhist monk in his white robe performing a ritual. All traditional except for his Nikes. Paradox!

    Love your story. All of our experiences inform who we are and what we do today!

  22. Wow what an amazing life you had in Korea. My Dad was in the Air Force and we lived on Hahn AFB Germany but I was only 7 when we arrived and 10 when we left. It is so much different living in an other country when you are an adult.

  23. I'm so happy you posted this! It was absolutely fantastic! I can't wait for you to start writing your memoirs =]

  24. Really enjoyed this post. My son is currently in South Korea teaching english to middle school age students. He loves it.

  25. This is a wonderful post sharing so much of your early life. You are just too adorable and adventurous not to have such amazing stories of your life in Korea. I am definitely going to buy your book and read every word as I am intrigued by your zest for life. Yes, now I can see how your jewelry follows your unique style of living life to the fullest. Thank you for sharing so openly...

  26. it is so nice of you to share your story! Thanks ! Lori, I think we are the same age, looking at your pictures, I see the 80's the 90's and today! Great trips out there! Thanks.

  27. Oh Lori, thank you for sharing that part of your life withus. I bet you were so much fun to hang-out with. And I can't wait for the Memories. Ofcourse I will have to have it Bblessed to be a blessing

  28. This might very well be my favorite post of yours, of all time, so far. :o) ~*THANK YOU!!!!*~

  29. this is so amazing and interesting to read, thanks so much for sharing!!!

  30. Thanks for sharing. One of my most favorite things to do when visiting friends is to look through their photo albums and talk about their adventures.

  31. WoW. Lori - what adventures you've had!!!!
    So amazing and inspiring. Not many people experience life this way and I'm sure it shaped you growing up.

    I am also thinking you would like Tai Chi now ;)
    You should sign up for it. I would like to try it myself.

    Beautiful story and writing your memoir is such a beautiful idea. Good luck my dear!

  32. Wow - what an amazing adventure you had. I would never have made it up the mountain much less down! Thank you for sharing yourself.

  33. Lori, I really enjoyed this post. What an amazing experience at such a young age!!! Kudos to climbing the top of that mountain. I hike the White Mountains but it never involves scaling with rope! I love that you met your husband then but did not reunite for another 10 years. I look forward to reading more! ~Val

  34. This is incredible! i loved every minute!!! xoxox!!! jean

  35. Lori, what a wonderful post! I only can dream of the life you had even though it seems quite daring, but I can see how all that has turned you into a daring artist. Thanks for the tiny peep into your life.

  36. Lori,
    You are totally amazing! I read the whole thing, word by word, and now I want the book, ok?

    I also see there is going to be another Bead Soup. I need to check out the "deadlines" etc, as we will be in Montreal for a week (rough, huh?) I really have to reclaim my inner beader again!!!

    Big hugs and thanks...

  37. Amazing..looking forward to the book!

  38. Thank you so much for posting this. My daughter plans to teach ESL in Korea. I will have to share this post with her.

  39. Wow! What an amazing adventure, and so brave. It sounds like you have a lot of great stories for your book.

    I would have been on the floor in the fetal position riding that cable car.

  40. Lori, You are so blessed to have had this experience - and the guts to take the chance.
    So when does to book come out??!!
    What wonderful stories/memories you have to share with Zack, too.

  41. Amazing post Lori. Thank you for sharing your time with us in Korea. I hear you about the studying at DLI and Goodfellow. I sure didn't think I would survive, but somehow I did. Thanks for your travels and how it influences you today and I can't wait for the book to come out!

  42. What an insight into who you are. Thanks for sharing and again thanks for your service. I really enjoyed reading this blog!

  43. Wow Lori! You have done some amazing things with your life. Thank you for sharing this.

  44. I was going to settle in to reading with a cup of tea until I remembered that this was a blog post and not a book. You tease!
    (thoroughly enjoying it so far!)

  45. Anonymous9:57 AM

    I've lived in Korea for almost 7 years, and I really enjoyed reading this story. It's interesting that as much as Korea has changed, in some ways it's still the same as it was when you were there: people still park (and drive!) on the sidewalks, old buildings look the same as they do in those photos (the difference being that there are tons of new skyscraper apartment buildings dotting the country), and you can still find markets like that "kimchi street" photo; there's one a short bus ride from where I live in Seoul, actually (again though, a difference: there are also lots of modern, superlatively clean and very expensive malls and department stores all over the place).

    Anyway, pardon the long post!

  46. Anonymous11:57 AM

    The pictures look like Korea of the 1980's.

  47. Anonymous5:53 AM

    wow it's amazing how u write so freely. seriously when I was doing a essay I wrote kind of freely. but when it came to entering the completion (my life in Korea contest) I had forgot all about saving it... :(

    sorry for the long post

  48. What a fun read; I was stationed at Osan for almost two years (I extended a short tour to stay a bit longer) in 1979 - 1980. We had some similar paths: I always wandered to get lost and often did, I always gamely ate downtown when I could, and I also took a side job teaching English to a group of Jr Execs at the Philips Electric Co in Suwon who in turn taught me Korean.


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