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Exploring the Flora and Flavors of Korean Heritage at Morris Arboretum

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Exploring the Flora and Flavors of Korean Heritage at Morris Arboretum

By Dyana Wing T. So.

On September 19th, 2015, the Morris Arboretum welcomed locals and members of the Penn community to “Culture Connection: Exploring Korean Heritage,” a half-day long event of Korean food-tastings, performances, and tours amid ninety-two acres of lush, green fields and trees.

The Morris Arboretum is actually a very fitting place to host an event to celebrate and explore Korean and Korean-American heritage. With a climate similar to that of Korea, the Northeast soil is like home for the native Korean trees and plants that thrive in the arboretum.

Trained volunteers led visitors on one-hour tours around the arboretum highlighting native Korean trees. There are as many as 37,000 trees at the Morris Arboretum, but with the help of keen and eager tour guides like Lorraine Bucci, visitors were able to distinguish different trees from one another and appreciate the Korean symbolism historically associated with each tree. The Ginko tree, for example, is such a prized tree in Korea that, even despite stressed economic times, it would not be cut down for firewood. The Silk Tree, also identified by the American misnomer as the Mimosa Tree, symbolizes intimacy, love, and marriage. A branch from the Korean Pine tree — from which edible pine nuts are harvested for international export — is placed over the entrance of a home with a newborn, with the hopes that the child will grow as strong as the tree.

The Morris Arboretum also collaborated with three Penn student groups to arrange shows for visitors. PennSori, KLASS, and PennDure performed before an audience ranging from local arboretum visitors to Penn students. Koreans, Korean-Americans, and students that fall into neither of the two categories of identity comprise the membership of these three groups, mutually connected to one another and the music that brings them closer to Korean culture.

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Performing in the Rose Garden, PennSori sang a capella to songs fusing American pop music with K-Pop (Korean pop music), such as in one number that combined Rihanna’s “Disturbia” with Brown-Eyed Girl’s “Abracadabra.”

KLASS, a Korean hip-hop group, featured original pieces written by its members, with the occasional covers of contemporary Korean hip-hop. Joon Yup Park, a senior in the College studying Mathematical Economics and the current President of KLASS, writes lyrics that are personal to him, and workshops them weekly with fellow members. “Korean rap is a different taste,” remarks James An, a fifth year senior studying Management and Religious Studies, and the founder of KLASS. An founded KLASS because he felt that such a distinct community did not exist at Penn. “Rap’s been a big part of my life — I just want this joy with others.”

PennDure, an undergraduate music group that plays traditional nong-ak with drums, shared the same scenic venue of the Azalea Meadow with KLASS. Nong-ak stems from rural Korean villages. Farmers played drums to ease the routine of labor in the fields, as well as celebrate harvest time. PennDure president, Seunghun Lee, and marketing chair, Sin Tae Kim, both came from South Korea to study at Penn, but it was at Penn that they found their inspiration and desire to get closer to their heritage through nong-ak. While most young Koreans, notes Lee, are more interested in K-Pop and other contemporary music, there are also young Koreans at home and abroad that continue learning nong-ak beyond elementary school. The blue, yellow, and red colors on the members’ costumes respectively represent sea, land, and humans, and they symbolize humans as the connecting entity between land and sky.

A diverse range of Penn community members took advantage of this opportunity to learn more about Korean heritage within this breathtaking context — quite literally — right in their very own backyards. “It’s refreshing to get off campus,” remarked Ashley Leung, a senior in the College studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE). “It doesn’t feel like you’re in Philadelphia anymore.”

View the full photo gallery on Flickr>

Dyana Wing So is a senior majoring in Visual Studies and minoring in Cinema Studies. At Penn, Dyana is also a speech adviser for Communication Within the Curriculum (CWiC), a research fellow representing Du Bois College College House, and a student ambassador for Penn Art & Culture. 

Edited by Mariah Macias.