While Falls Church local Chuck Hobbie’s family was thrilled about his decision to join the U.S. Peace Corps back in 1968, only his mailman seemed to have qualms about his plans to teach English to Korean students in Seoul.
“He was an older man of course – had fought in the Korean War – said it was too cold and that I’d be miserable,” said Hobbie.
The mailman lost that battle, to say the least, and Hobbie started an intensive, four-month training program in Hawaii before heading to East Asia, where he volunteered until 1971 before becoming a Peace Corps staffer.
Nearly 40 years on the dot from when he first said his goodbyes to the U.S., Hobbie has recently returned from a visit back to Seoul, where he and more than 30 other former volunteers were honored with the James A. Van Fleet Award Citation from the Korea Society. Invited on the behalf, and at the expense, of the Korean government under the administration of President Lee Myung-Bak, the Peace Corps veterans were honored for playing a significant role in supporting U.S.-Korea relations.
“They said that our presence had given them a perspective of the United States they had never seen before and an opportunity to learn about average, non-mission-oriented Americans, contrary to the soldiers they had seen during the Korean War,” said Hobbie.
It was also discovered during his visit that many of the current higher-level Korean government officials, including President Myung-Bak’s chief of staff Yu Woo-ik, were former students of the Peace Corps volunteer teachers.
Hobbie’s wife, Young, and son, Jason, joined him on the trip, meeting his former Korean colleagues, some of whom still work at Kyungpook National University, where Hobbie was assigned to teach in 1969. However, it was Hobbie’s 29-year-old son who caused a stir.
“He was very much the focus of attention when I met my former Korean colleagues. The eldest son is a big deal in Asian cultures, so they wanted to know how old he was, what he did, whether or not he was single – everyone had a girl they wanted Jason to meet [laughs] so he left with about a dozen marriage proposals,” joked Hobbie.
Perhaps it was a “like father, like son” expectation, as Hobbie and his wife met while he was serving in Korea through mutual friends, though they were not romantic until reuniting years later in Germany. A few months following their reunion, Young ventured to the U.S. for a visit, and Hobbie proposed.
Korean culture has influenced the couple’s life ever since, from at-home cuisine to their children’s education. Hobbie said he misses the fellowship the most from his time spent overseas, but finds it now at Korean events in Washington, D.C., where he works as the Deputy General Counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees.
Hobbie said after seeing Korea again, with its plethora of technological and academic advancements, the country he temporarily called home was almost unrecognizable.
“I wouldn’t have known I had landed in Korea unless someone on the plane told me,” said Hobbie. “Forty years ago, people didn’t care about leaving something on the streets and now, it’s probably one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever been in.”
Hobbie said he’s even considering moving back for a few years after he retires, saying that until this trip he had never seriously considered it.
As for follow-up reunions, the Korean government hopes to host one annually for the next five years.
“I think they were waiting to see how this one went, and from my point of view, it went wonderfully,” said Hobbie. “It was a trip of a lifetime and I really can’t say enough good things about it.”