My Early Life in Asia, and to a Lesser Extent, Europe: 1986 - 1990

By Charles Wetzel

Slightly before the age of four, I had been living abroad for close to three years. I was born in the Netherlands, moved back to the United States for about one year, and then promptly ended up moving to Seoul, South Korea, where I spent ages one through three (I was closing in on four when we left). My first memories are of Korea. The reason my family was in Korea was because my dad was posted there with F.A.S. (the Foreign Agriculture Service) of the U.S. government. My mom had a gig working for Hanil Bank.

Recently, one of my students (a kindergartener named Kana) here in Japan asked me to bring in some of my baby pictures and show her. So I hounded my mom for some of the pictures of me when I was a baby, toddler, or preschool student. This yielded lots of pictures of me in Korea, a few from the Netherlands, and even one from Paris, France. I had traveled to more countries at age three than many people have traveled to in their lifetimes!

However, the point of this photo essay isn't just "travel." It's also to make a point that I have a deep, personal connection to Asia. By the age of three, I had lived in Korea for over two years (the majority of my life at that time), formed my first lasting memories there, gone to my first preschool there, made my first true friends there, pulled the lever on the slot machine at the Dragon Hill Lodge, cried at the sight of Buddhist nuns with shaved heads at a local Buddhist temple, and conversed with the likes of housekeeper Mrs. Ha and gardener Mr. Lee! This is one reason why I have always felt I have a deep connection with Asia. This deep connection means that both the good things and the bad things have a bigger impact on me, and I feel that I "belong" here much more than other westerners often do (though I am by no means unique in this respect, just rare). Living in Hong Kong from 1998 - 2001 and graduating from Hong Kong International School Middle School reinforced these feelings; at age 14, I had spent over 1/3 of my life in East Asia!

Normally, I don't tend to post things on my Web site about my family or my life pre-2006 (when I moved to Korea for the second time), but on rare occasion, I make exceptions for important events (like the death of my dog, Toby), or for things that are highly related to my life in Asia (like my writings about Macau for HKIS from 1998). This is one such exception, and I believe that if you read it, you will understand why.

World Traveler at Ages 0 - 3

This picture is of my friends and I outside the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Seoul, South Korea. I'm not sure about the date on this picture, but since I look younger than I do in another picture dated to 1989, I'm going to guess '88 or '89 (update: it was '89).

This picture is of my dad and I in Hong Kong (I could be mistaken, but I think we're riding the Star Ferry). Our family made a trip to Hong Kong in 1990, when it was still under British control, around the time we left Korea and moved back to the U.S. My sister, Emily, is the baby in the backpack (she lived in Korea and traveled to Hong Kong with us, too, back in 1990, but was actually born in the Unites States).
This is me in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France with my mom (1987). Sometime around '86 and/or '87, my parents brought me on various trips around Europe. This essentially means I've been to a bunch of important places in Europe, but have no memory of them!

I was born in Den Haag, the Netherlands at Bronovo Ziekenhuis Hospital (because my parents were posted to Den Haag with the Foreign Agriculture Service) on October 24, 1986, technically still October 23, 1986 in my country of citizenship, the U.S.A. So when I was in the U.S.A., had I bought lottery tickets on the evening of October 23, 2004, could I have been arrested for buying them underage? And what if I'd bought a beer on 10/23/2007? Legal scholars, opinions please.

Korea, Part I (1988 - 1990)

Outside the Ambassador's Residence, Seoul (I think the girl on the lion's head is Catherine K., my childhood friend, who also lived on the Yongsan base). Update: by the way, these U.S. ambassador's residence photos were taken on Easter of '89. That thing hanging off of my hat was an Easter bunny that my mom sewed on. The hat was my Hodori hat (Hodori was the mascot of the 1988 Seoul Olympics).

Mrs. Ha took care of me quite often when my mom was working at Hanil Bank (later acquired by Woori Bank). This picture is from '89. She taught me my first words of Korean and my mom says she was great at taking care of my sister and I (I don't remember very much about her, but the few things I do remember are positive).
Another Picture of Mrs. Ha and I (the only difference between this one and the last one being that I now have a toy camera), '89
I've been a "student" in Korea twice. The second time ('06 - '09) when I attended and graduated from Yonsei University Korean Language Institute and also completed my Associate of Arts in Liberal Studies at Excelsior College is fairly well documented. But what about the first time? Well, I attended Mustard Seed Preschool in Seoul! Yahoo! This picture is from October '89. You can see Mrs. Ha in the picture, as well.
At the Neighborhood Playground (Korea, probably sometime around '89 or '90)

I'm so secure in my masculinity, I can post photos of me in front of our house in Korea with a Raggedy Ann doll, an Ernie d—ummm, "stuffed toy," and a big wheel and it's no problem at all! Now, go get me my pink polo shirt and I'll go mow the lawn!

These are various pictures of me from Korea. The one above is just an innocuous picture of me in my red PJs. The one below is me washing the car in our yard. Pheasants would come into our yard. Sometimes, North Korean propaganda fliers would also drift into our yard, too. My parents obediently turned these into the authorities rather than keeping them as souvenirs. I can't say I would've done the same!

The above picture is of Moth (my grandmother, who lived until 2013) and Grandpa (who lived until 1990) with me in Gyeongju. Everyone had piled into my parents' little Hyundai car and driven across the country, from Seoul to Gyeongju.

This is me at the Taech'ŏn Beach Cabin in 1990. I wasn't initially sure about the date, but since I'm wearing a Hong Kong T-shirt in the picture (our Hong Kong trip was in '90), it must have been '90. I actually remember the vacation to Taech'ŏn quite clearly. The TV in the cabin didn't receive broadcast TV (remember, this was a remote, backwater part of Korea, which itself was still a developing country in 1990). So we brought a Winnie the Pooh video to watch. And I think I also saw the MGM lion roaring for the first time on that TV set, but I could be mistaken about that.

Below is a picture of me on Taech'ŏn Beach (now known as Boryeong Beach), where I found some starfish that we put in our shed by the house when we got back to Seoul (I think they ended up getting stinky, which may explain why they were not brought back to the U.S.A. when we moved back in '90). Update: this picture was taken in 1989. There were actually two trips to Daecheon Beach, one in 1989, and another in 1990.

Korea: The Beach Vacation, 1990

I feel that this part deserves its own section. First of all, when going through these photos, I noticed that my mom had written "Taechon" on the photographs. A quick Wikipedia search will reveal the following information about Taechon: it has numerous mountains, is drained by the Taeryong River, and is home to the famous Taechon Nuclear Reactor, which had to be shut down in 1994:
It is located in North Pyongan Province, North Korea.

Word. So the U.S. government sweet-talked Kim Il-sung into letting them build a beach cabin and send their personnel on vacations to the beach in his reclusive Stalinist nation, made all the more amazing by the fact that Taechon is landlocked. And I guess my parents were more adventurous than I thought.

Actually, though, my mom writing "Taechon" was due to two factors:

  1. In 1990, South Korea was still using the McCune-Reischauer system of Romanization. So would have been Romanized "Taech'ŏn back in those days.
  2. Most Korean tourist literature has absolutely horrible Romanization (even in 2012), so they probably were too lazy to type out the apostrophe and the breve over the o.

    This resulted in my mom writing "Taechon" a county in North Korea, on the photo. See, Koreans, what happens when you ignore the Romanization lessons you were supposed to have learned in school?!

So let's call it "Daecheon Beach," instead, using the modern Ministry of Education Romanization system that is used in South Korea today (i.e. the same one that changed "Pusan" to "Busan" and "Inch'ŏn" to "Incheon." Daecheon Beach, now known as Boryeong, is now the site of the Boryeong Mud Festival (however, I visited it as a small child long before the Boryeong Mud Festival tradition started in 1998). I attended the Boryeong Mud Festival in 2007, which was my first time back in the area in about nearly two decades, and again in 2008:

Anyways, I digress. Here are some photos of me at Daecheon Beach taken in 1990, when I was three years old.

The Netherlands (1986 - 1987) and Hong Kong (1990)

Pictures of me as a tiny baby in the Den Haag, the Netherlands, where I was born (the picture below also has my mom in it).

Hong Kong, Probably the Star Ferry, Vacation, '90

On that vacation, I saw a man doing tai chi in a park. I was sitting in my stroller. He made elaborate tai chi moves with his arms. I started to imitate him from my stroller. Apparently this entertained people.

I don't really remember anything about my stint in the Netherlands from '86 to '87. All I know is what my parents have told me. I think that my dad developed his habit of taking photos of storefronts with a great deal of culture in them then (like some of the photos he took later of the fronts of Daoist Chinese medicine shops in Hong Kong). I also know that when my mom was pregnant with me, she had to stay indoors because a radioactive cloud from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the U.S.S.R. was passing over Europe. And one time, my dad bought a TV set that had been manufactured in the U.S.S.R. and my mom made him return it. And I stood up in my crib for the first time in Alsace-Lorraine, France. And my parents once stayed in a creepy lodge in Austria that may have been haunted, and said that they felt something terrible had happened there (always made for great conversations in the car on long drives). But I don't remember any of those things personally, because I was so young (or in the case of some of that stuff, not even born yet). Why do people forget everything that happens to them before the age of three? Who knows? I once watched a lecture by a Yale professor who said a possibility is that language acquisition completely rewires our brains in such a way that the pre-lingual memories are lost forever., those are my photos. I actually remember some of the things that happened in the Korea and Hong Kong photos (fuzzy memories, but memories nonetheless). Maybe in the future, when I'm back in the States for Christmas or something, I'll chase down more pictures. Maybe we can even backup and archive some of the old VHS tapes that were taken on my dad's camcorder. But for now, I think the reader now has a sense of what my life was like from ages 0 - almost 4.