|Donna N. Murphy|
We recently had a series of ups and downs here in Seoul. On Sunday, March 30, a fire broke out at the U.S. Embassy. Someone in the IT department had too many Blackberries plugged in to too many power strips. The alarm sounded, the Marine guard went to investigate, and meanwhile one of the Korean policemen who stand guard outside the Embassy noticed smoke and called the fire dept., which is just across the street. Because the fire was extinguised quickly, only one half of the fifth floor was damaged. But the fourth floor below received water damage, and the sickening smell of melted plastic permeated the elevator shafts and much of the fifth and sixth floors. I’m on the sixth floor, but the Americans’ offices are behind a cypher-lock door because we deal with classified material. The well-sealed door kept the odor out, but the Economics Section Korean staff on the other side ended up working out of the Embassy Annex for the week it took to for a fan and plastic tunnel contraption that led out a window to properly ventilate the space. Some people from the fifth floor are temporarily working out of the first floor conference room while their offices are being rebuilt.
The nation of Korea is still in mourning for the lives lost in the April 16 sinking of the Sewol ferry: over 300 people died, including most of the junior class from Danwon High School, who were on a class field trip. What makes it worse is that the tragedy was entirely preventable: a perfect storm of incompetencies made it happen. The third mate, who had never steered the ship before in these treacherous waters, turned too sharply. The crew repeatedly told passengers to remain in their rooms, until it was too late for them to be able to get to the deck. The boat capsized until only the hull was visible, signaling the criminal way in which it was loaded. To increase profits, it carried three times more weight than in should have in cargo and cars. To hide this from port authorities, the crew drained out the water balast in the hull so that the boat would ride higher in the ocean. When a properly balasted ship sinks, the bottom sinks into the ocean before the top. The aftermath has hurt the economy, as people are not out shopping and taking trips within Korea like they normally would.
President Obama visited Korea April 25-6, and presented it with a magnolia sapling from a tree President Andrew Jackson planted on the White House grounds when his wife died while he was in office—a lovely gesture.
It’s unbelievable how much work goes into a POTUS (President of the U.S.) visit, as the Embassy hosts the pre-advance team, the advance team, scouts venues, sets up secure communications, etc. And then there are the last-minute surprises, like the magnolia sapling we learned about the day before it arrived. The sapling had its own control officer from the White House staff. Did it pass a pest inspection? Were the roots packed in real dirt? Oh, fake dirt—then it’s OK. When and to whom will POTUS present it? How will it get to the high school? The Embassy delegation must stay with POTUS until the wheels of Air Force One retract into the airplane at the airport, and then we throw a “wheels-up” party.
The same Saturday Obama left, I attended a national Toastmasters convention in Seoul. I had my picture taken with Toastmasters International President George Yen and his wife, who are from Taiwan. I listened to some amazing speeches, including ones by Lance Miller, who was the 2005 TM world speech champion. His award-winning performance, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQSAYobiSuk, is an incredible speech that can change for the better how you interact with people. Please watch it! At the convention I received an award I didn’t even know existed, the Triple Crown, for those who complete three or more educational awards in one year. I was able to announce at the convention that the U.S. Embassy Toastmasters club that I’d helped start, KOR-US Toastmasters, had been officially chartered. It takes a lot of hard work to get to a new club chartered!
The closer we get to when we return to the U.S. this summer, the more we want to spend time sightseeing in Korea. We took a trip down to Gyoengju, the capitol of the Silla Dynasty that ruled from 57 B.C. to 935 A.D. We saw large burial mounds, as well as the contents of one that had been opened, and the gold, pottery and metal implements that accompanied the mummy. We visited the picturesque Anapji Pond and the Bulguksa Temple, as well as the Seokguram grotto, where a huge statue of Buddha sits quietly in a cave way up on a mountain.
Back in Seoul, I saw a changing of the guard ceremony at the Deoksugung Palace, and visited Jeogyesa Temple, bedecked in colorful lanterns in celebration of Buddha’s birthday.