If you’re walking on a fall afternoon across any college campus in Korea, you’ll probably hear the sound of Korean farmer’s music. More accurately, the sound will enter your body. It will synchronize your heartbeat with its own. The large drum, called the changgu, provides the pulse. The beat grounds you, connects you to the campus, to the landscape, to Korea.
On countless fall days, I’ve heard the changgu resonate from unadorned citizen centers and sandy schoolyards. Elderly housewives gather with shop owners and learn the changgu. Awkward teens gather with other awkward teens to play the changgu. Led by teachers of lithe grace and resounding voice, their bodies learn new rhythms.
Kalamazoo College alumnus Gary Rector ’65 found a home in Korea. He also found a home in the changgu.
In 1994, after 27 years in Korea, Gary Rector took the famously difficult Korean citizenship exam. He was the only one to get 100 percent. He became a Korean national, fluent in both Korean language and the changgu.
As a fellow K alum who has lived several years in Korea, I wanted to learn more about Gary’s story, so I went to visit with him in his book-lined office near his home. He has lived in the same northern Seoul neighborhood for 40 years. When he first moved there, it was all traditional-style Korean houses, and many of his neighbors were fortunetellers and shamans. Now, the neighborhood is a jumble of crumbling traditional homes, 1980s villas and shops, and soaring new apartment complexes, intersected by highway overpasses and steep hills. I asked Gary what brought him to that neighborhood. It turns out that it’s the place where he learned to play the changgu.
Gary’s interest in his surrounding soundscapes started at a young age. He grew up in a musical family in Kentucky and still treasures early memories of his family playing bluegrass and spirituals. When he was an elementary school aged boy he moved with his father to Toledo, Ohio, and there he gained an awareness of how the sounds of language can differ, one place to another.
He spent childhood summers in Kentucky, and the school year in Ohio. As he traveled between these regions of two distinct dialects, he learned to speak both, alternating the Southern dialect of Kentucky with the Midwestern pronunciation of Ohio. Also, for a time, he and his father shared a house with Polish immigrants, and young Gary realized that he could understand their Polish. His interest in language burgeoned in high school; he studied French at his home high school, and travelled to another high school in order to study Russian.
In 1961 Gary started school at K. He continued to study French, as well as other languages, and became particularly interested in linguistics. After his junior year in Caen, France, he was hired for a work-study job in the language lab helping other students with French pronunciation.
Gary also got involved in theatre and music at the College. When he first arrived at K, his roommate (and to this day lifelong friend) John Bolin, convinced him to come along to theatre auditions. They both performed in many plays, and John later went on to become a longtime theatre professor at Berea College.
Another K friend was learning to do flat picking on the guitar, and Gary realized that his mom and dad had done that as well. Suddenly inspired, Gary began to play. He joined a jug band with friends, and continued to play with the band after graduation.
Jug band? “Wait,” I interrupted. “Did the jug band have a name?”
“Yeah, it did have a name,” he responded vaguely, with a mischievous smile. For a moment, I felt like I was talking to the college-aged Gary.
“What was it?” I didn’t let him off the hook.
“New Pandora Mountain Backstairs Walkup Letters to Mother Coloring Book and Jug Band. The girl who played the washboard named it.” His eyes twinkled.
I laughed. Classic K kid, I thought.
A significant mentor for Gary at Kalamazoo College was linguistics professor Peter Boyd-Bowman. He fueled Gary’s interest in linguistics. He also operated an innovative program for learning neglected languages. From 1963 to 1965, students in Boyd-Bowman’s program used a combination of audiotapes and pronunciation coaching from exchange students to learn Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Swahili, and Brazilian Portuguese. Many of the students who participated continued studying their language of choice more intensively through a summer program. Gary wanted to learn Hindi, but the program was limited to first- and second-year students, so he wasn’t able to participate. Ironically, Gary became probably the most successful student of neglected languages that Boyd-Bowman mentored. Gary’s later experience learning Korean reflects the personal motivation and attention to pronunciation that formed the basis for K’s neglected languages program.
After he graduated, Gary took a job at the Gibson guitar factory in Kalamazoo. Then, he decided to join the Peace Corps, requesting a non-European language speaking country. And so began his Korean experience.
Gary was part of the fourth class of Peace Corp volunteers sent to Korea, and arrived there at the end of 1967. Before starting their service, the volunteers received language training, and Gary stood out as a particularly skilled linguist from the beginning. His group of volunteers focused on public health, and after training he was posted in a small village called Cheongdo, outside of Daegu.
To learn Korean he spent as much time with local people as possible, speaking only their language. He also regularly bought a monthly volume of cartoons, and read them with a little boy he knew. Gary would ask the boy to explain any words he didn’t know, and, in exchange, would give the boy the volume when he finished reading it. After nine months in Korea, he also began to study the Chinese character writing system, and eventually became a fluent reader as well.
Gary brought his guitar and autoharp to Korea, and continued to play music. In 1969 he even composed and recorded a pop song in Korean titled “A Tomorrow Without Tuberculosis,” for a Peace Corps volunteer record aimed at earning money for the Korea Tuberculosis Association. The album sold more than 20,000 copies! Gary knew he wanted to learn Korean music, and tried more classical court-style instruments, but they did not particularly suit him. When he went to listen to Korean farmer’s music, he fell in love.
In Seoul, Gary heard the Korea-America Farmer’s Music Group, led by the man who would eventually become Gary’s long-term mentor, Kim Byeong-seop. Kim had had a bad crop year, so the group hired him to play and teach the changgu. At that point, Gary was in his late 20s, and Kim told Gary he was too old to start learning. But Gary persisted and eventually played the second changgu side-by-side with his teacher. Student and teacher playing together made a symmetrical picture—Gary right-handed, his teacher left-handed. Korean audiences loved that symmetry. In many ways, the music became Gary’s home. For several years Gary slept on the floor in the practice hall and helped newcomers to rehearse.
He would work part-time to earn enough to support himself while he played. After his volunteer service, Gary continued with Peace Corps. He trained Korean locals to use audio-visual materials for public health education. He also created language-learning materials and tested the language ability of new volunteers. Gary then worked for the Language Teaching Research Center, helping to create materials for Korean language textbooks.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, he worked professionally on many creative projects, and his career development followed the rapid trajectory of the Korean economy. He worked as a copywriter, editor, and translator for LG Ad (formerly Heesung Advertising). Then, he worked for the public relations committee for the Seoul 1988 Olympics Organizing Committee.
Gary’s decision to become a citizen began with loss. In 1987, he had a dream that he got a call informing him that his father had died. The next day, he did receive a call, and he learned that his changgu teacher had died. His father died exactly one month later. It was then when he started to think about becoming a Korean citizen because he had more significant personal ties in Korea than in the U.S. at that point, and citizenship would give him the flexibility to do freelance work. Gary continued to write widely on topics related to Korean language, culture, and society. He also took on translation and editing projects. He became a citizen in 1994 and continued to write, edit, and translate for many government and corporate clients. He even wrote a weekly newspaper column on Korean society that ran for 10 years.
One of Gary’s current interests is in cued speech, used mostly for deaf students to aid in lip reading and accurate detection of exact phonemes. He worked with Professor Seo Chang-won, a professor of special education at Far Eastern University, to develop a version of cued speech for Korean. Learning cued speech can significantly increase the reading aptitude of deaf students. Gary is interested in applying cued speech to teaching foreign languages. By signaling the exact phonemes, cued speech can help learners increase their listening comprehension, writing ability, and pronunciation.
Gary Rector’s life continues its immersion in the sounds and rhythms of language. For me, his life story is a reminder of the ways we all are shaped by sounds and rhythms, if we only take notice.
The author: Nora Hauk ’04 majored in theatre arts at K, and studied abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She spent two years after graduation on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in South Korea. She is currently a doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Michigan. She received the Blakemore Fellowship for Advanced Asian Language study, and graduated from Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute. She is now in Seoul working on research for her dissertation.