Robert J. Fouser is the first foreign professor to teach Korean
language teaching methods at Seoul National University. He also leads a
campaign to preserve Seochon Hanok Village.
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.
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
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.
(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
When your reporter for KOREA asks him why he is so interested in Seochon, his eyes light up with passion.
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
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.
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
fell in love with the warm and generous affection that Hanok houses
reflect, and decided to become a 'Hanok village keeper'.
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.
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