By Lee Hyo-won
“My name is Shim Eun-kyung,” Kathleen Stephens, undoubtedly the most popular American ambassador assigned to the country as of late, said in fluent Korean to introduce herself upon arriving at Incheon Airport to assume her post on Sept. 23, 2008.
The Korean name was given to her when she served as a Peace Corps volunteer during the 1970s, and now graces the title of her new book for Korean readers. As suggested by its English title, “An American Ambassador’s Reflections on Life in Korea” (Joongang Books: 296 pp., 13,000 won), it is a recollection of her personal experiences since returning here. But “fans” of the diplomat may well recognize the content from her blog, a much visited corner of the American embassy’s official online community site, Cafe USA.
“(The blog) gives me a way to share with a broader audience, to share a little bit of what I experienced here, including all the hospitality and warmth I’ve received,” Stephens said during a press meeting, Wednesday, at Habib House, the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to Korea in Jongno, Seoul. Some 55,000 netizens have visited the site.
The hardcover volume is not only a compilation of the blog entries but also includes more biographical details that were not available online, such as references to her childhood and her relationship with her son.
The blog-turned-book reads like a journal more than anything — “It’s a kind of diary,” Stephens said — and captures what everyday life is like for a foreign diplomat to live here, such as the “jeong” (Korean sense of kinship and affinity) she felt from people she encountered.
She was, for example, “overwhelmed” by the big reception she received when she visited the Chungcheong Province school she taught at as a Peace Corps volunteer. Come rain or shine, the diplomat can easily be found biking by the Han River, and she once received help from a man to inflate her flat tires. Another time, she recalled how movie star Jang Dong-gun was very kind to her during a charity marathon.
“I always come across such (hospitable) Koreans who are eager to hear about Korea’s story as I travel through Korea’s roads and fields, hills and rivers. These people and the warm ‘jeong’ they shared have truly made the most lasting impressions. I believe this is what truly defines the Korean spirit, and it is Korea’s greatest strength and beauty” (p. 287).
Moreover, she reflects on how much Korea has changed since her Peace Corps days. “Korea has fulfilled the dream of President Kennedy by becoming the first and only Peace Corps recipient country to become a sending country for international volunteers,” she wrote about KOICA (Korea International Cooperation Agency). Stephens also poses questions about women’s empowerment — herself being the first female representative of her country here — and comments on how Korean women’s roles have transformed over the years.
The diplomat also introduces various charms of living in the country, from tasting organic Buddhist temple food with her son to exploring the scenery of Jeju Island, and becoming an honorary ambassador for “hangeul,” the Korean alphabet (photos accompanying her words show Stephens sporting a fashionable hangeul motif scarf by Lie Sang-bong).
The book also takes readers behind the scenes of political events. During U.S. President Barack Obama’s first visit here last year, she noticed that he particularly liked fried “dasima” (fried dry seaweed). She also did a favor for local fans of figure skating champion Kim Yu-na by sharing the handwritten letter the athlete wrote to the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
These intimate details combined with friendly cultural diplomacy — which, in essence, is really about finding binding ties between peoples — that one can discern through her writing.
“Most importantly for me, (the blog) helped me and the embassy to start a two-way conversation with the Korean public,” she said. Living in “one of the most wired countries in the world,” it seemed only natural for her to become a part of the “daetgeul” (online comments by netizen) culture here — she takes the time to read and respond to each readers’ comments. In an entry expressing condolences on Andre Kim’s death, she responds to a curious netizen to say, no, she does not own a dress by the late designer but has an umbrella designed by him.
“I thank everyone for the interest and I was thinking how I could draw from these experiences to become a better ambassador here, to help build better understanding between our two peoples,” she said.
Proceeds from book sales will go to a charitable cause, said a staff member of Joongang Books. The book is in Korean, having been translated by bilingual embassy staff. Stephens’ blog entries are available in both the original English and Korean. There is also a helpful section highlighting English vocabulary used in the entries (one suggestion however might be to use the formal Romanization system for geographical locations and names). Visit cafe.daum.net/usembassy.