The Jeju of my childhood

by Peter DeMarco
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

Jeju’s mythic volcanic statues — known as stone grandfathers, or dol hareubang — have altered the course of my life. For most tourists who visit the island, they are no more than a kitsch souvenir: a last-minute airport gift in the form of a keychain or orange-flavored chocolate. For many who live on Jeju, they are gods that offer protection and fertility, as well as centuries-old symbols of Buddhism and shamanism. But for me, they’re a symbol as powerful as the giant statues on Easter Island or the faces carved in stone at Angkor Wat.

When I was 6, I lived on Jeju for a year with my family. We flew halfway around the world to live on what was then a poor little island at the end of nowhere. When we left, one of the things we brought back was a dol hareubang statue carved out of porous volcanic rock.

I was so young when I went to Jeju that as I got older, I wondered if the island even existed. The statue was the only physical evidence that our trip ever happened. When I moved away to college I took my stone grandfather with me. From then on it became my talisman, a reminder to keep searching for the mythical and magical in the everyday. I knew I would go back — had to go back — one day.

Years went by. My statue followed me from Boston to Barcelona and beyond. By the time I hit my 30s, I felt like I had to make my return trip to Jeju or I never would. I drew up my own little romantic pilgrimage route. It started in Mongolia, ran through China, then on to Seoul and finally ended on Jeju. I bought a ticket, packed my bag and left for Asia. When I finally arrived on the island in 2007, I couldn’t recognize it.

There was a multimillion-dollar World Cup stadium, a sex sculpture theme park, a teddy bear museum, five-star resorts and huge apartment blocks. Now Jeju is the self-proclaimed Peace Island, yet a naval base big enough to hold 20 military vessels is being built. It has three UNESCO World Heritage sites, yet a huge, garish billboard for an American multilevel marketing company was erected right in front of one of the island’s most iconic sites: Sunrise Peak. And Jeju has one of the most distinct dialects and histories in all of Korea, yet locals worry about the Chinafication of the island as increasing numbers of Chinese now enter Jeju visa-free. In fact, a major cruise line will run 33 voyages a year from Shanghai to Jeju in 2015 for over 60,000 passengers. And that’s just the beginning.

Billy Joel’s song about change, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” played in my head as I tried to figure out where the Jeju of my childhood went. I knew it would be different, just not that much. Even though the island transformed, Jeju still is what it always has been: one of the most intriguing and mystical islands in Asia. Little by little, parts of the old Jeju came back to me. It usually happened when I left the tourist trail, like when I smelled the burning brush in the fields or saw the black lava shores. At the end of my year’s stay, I felt reconnected.

I wonder, will I be able to recognize the place if I come back 35 years from now? Regardless of the inevitable changes, I think I will forever feel connected to the island. If you really want to go deep into the heart of Jeju, look into the eyes of a stone grandfather, and remember that it is you who brings Jeju to life.

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