October 13, 2002 - Korea Herald: David Alvord came on the U.S. Peace Corps' pioneer mission in Korea

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David Alvord came on the U.S. Peace Corps' pioneer mission in Korea

Read and comment on this story from the Korea Herald on David Alvord who came on the U.S. Peace Corps' pioneer mission in Korea from 1966 to 68, Alvord lived and worked in a dusty, underdeveloped country where $45, his salary, was that of a college graduate, and more than enough to get by on. He lived like those around him, and enjoyed every minute of it. Read the story at:

Take me home, country road... *

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Take me home, country road...

It was 9:05 a.m. on a Wednesday. The interview was at 10 a.m. and already, our newsroom floor manager reported, a human lightning bolt flashed in, screeched to a stop, dropped off a six-page resume hand-written in magic marker and assured he would be back.

David Alvord did come back, and in more ways than one. First here on the U.S. Peace Corps' pioneer mission in Korea from 1966 to 68, Alvord lived and worked in a dusty, underdeveloped country where $45, his salary, was that of a college graduate, and more than enough to get by on. He lived like those around him, and enjoyed every minute of it.

Now, after 36 years, a string of government jobs, environmental projects and profitable business ventures, the youthful, enterprising 61-year-old is back for good. He is an English instructor, here to share lessons learned in the old Korea with the new and in his own way make as indelible an imprint. Korea, even a caffeinated, ultramodern one, must assuredly still be reeling from the first time around.

Tall and handsomely dressed in Brooks Brothers casual, Alvord has both the paternal air of a high school track coach and the restlessness of a truant schoolboy. When he speaks, he shifts in his seat, he gesticulates wildly, and when you bring up how he feels about the Korea he first came to know, he glows.

"I loved it because of the beauty and I loved it because of the people," Alvord says in his reedy Idaho accent.

Stationed in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province, which was in the 1960s a far-flung hamlet hemmed in by hills and rice paddies, Alvord taught high school biology and lived deep within the fold of a Korean family.

"I felt very, very much at home," opening a worn album of black and white photographs. There was Alvord, then 22 with apple-pie good-looks, hauling bundles of straw on a wooden frame. Another picture showed a busload of young Americans, all Peace Corps volunteers, looking perhaps a touch anxious, and another with Alvord and his host family in a courtyard bordered by tiled-roofed houses. Alvord looked at home in every one.

"I ate the same food as the family ate," he said. "I wasn't set apart, I wasn't given eggs and hash brown potatoes for breakfast. I did things the Korean way, I mean totally. I didn't want to set myself apart."

But for a blue-eyed Idahoan in 1960s Korea, it was not exactly easy. A natural at telling a yarn, Alvord conjures up a land of smoky dirt roads and buses made from scrap metal. On one of them, in Yangsan, walked Alvord and some of his students as a farmer was passing in the opposite direction. That is until he saw a big white guy with a bunch of Korean kids.

"I can quote the conversation verbatim," smiling, shaking his head and peppering his speech with Korean.

"He says, 'miguk saram immikka?' Are you an American? And I say 'hanguk saram immikka?' (Are you a Korean?) And the students just howled. It was like I had come from outer space, like I had dropped in out of a spaceship."

The farmer of Alvord's sepia-toned memory wouldn't be the last. After closing the doors on the mountain bike company he founded over a decade ago, he left his homeland and the varied life he had led there (he was a recruiter for the Peace Corps, worked for an Idaho governor, was co-chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee and owned an import/export business) for one no less unordinary. Alvord returned to Korea in August this year, and even made it back to South Gyeongsang Province, this time on Geoje Island, southwest of Busan. With the government-sponsored EPIK (English Program in Korea), Alvord has taken his Peace Corps goodwill, his treasure chest of experience and his passion for Korea and has put his heart and soul into teaching his native tongue.

English is not at all new to his students, teachers and schoolchildren, but his method, eccentric, if not downright zany, is something certainly none of them has experienced prior.

"I do a thing about Idaho," Alvord says, talking of one of a lesson plan for students at the Geoje Island elementary school, one of the schools where he divides his time. "I get potatoes, I throw potatoes in class."

It goes back to the idea of tactility, Alvord explains. If you can see it, touch it, look at it from different angles, you can understand it. Eventually you learn it. What is a potato? This oblong, dirt-covered thing is a potato.

He draws upon his Peace Corps experience as well. Carefully removing a studio picture of himself in 1967 in traditional Korean dress, a silk vest and baggy trousers. "Who is this," he says to his kids.

"They say I look like Leonardo DiCaprio in this picture. Now, I am told I am Hiddink the soccer coach."

His art of teaching has made him a popular and effective teacher, as well as popular among the teachers he trains.

"I don't care about testing teachers. As far as I'm concerned they all get A pluses. I want them to relax I want them to have fun."

"Don't Worry, Be Happy," Bobby McFerrin's reggae paean to insouciance, which Alvord has yet to find a copy of in Korea, may best typify his philosophy, even when dealing with occasional frustrations of the gleaming gadget-driven society his yellowing, bullock-cart 1960s Korea has become. But mostly Alvord is proud of the progress Korea has made since his Peace Corps years."

"The most flattering thing to me about our experience in Korea was (that) Korea established their equivalent of the Peace Corps where they've gone out and done the same things in developing countries."

And Alvord cites Geoje Island, too, as yet another example, swearing his students and his teacher trainees can take on any brain in any of Seoul's hallowed halls.

"This isn't the way thing used to be. I mean you can take a kid from Geoje island in the past and that kid would come to Seoul to start middle school and go to high school here in Seoul."

Money from shipbuilding giants Hyundai and Samsung on Geoje island has changed all that, but it doesn't come without minor setbacks, like having a student who would rather sit pretty in Gucci shoes than walk in the mountains. But Alvord laughs this off as well.

"I give them all nicknames. I call her 'No Sweat.' She just won't sweat. She won't walk!"

Leave to this dyed-in-the-wool adventurer, sportsman, academic, and storyteller to put a new spin on an old phrase.

David, how bout we wrap up this interview, have a bowl of rice wine, trek 12 km, climb Mt. Bukhan, discuss way to optimize education in Korea over lunch, run a lap and be back in time for "galbi?"

No sweat.

Can't you just imagine?


By Jason Sparapani Staff reporter


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